U.S. Overdose deaths are on the rise in Black and Indigenous populations

Aug 25, 2022

A new analysis published by the Smithsonian Magazine and authored by Margaret Osborne earlier in July discussed the rising numbers of overdose deaths in the U.S., particularly in African-American and indigenous populations.

New data released by the CDC demonstrates that during the first year of the pandemic, drug overdose deaths significantly increased among these two groups. Specifically, it shows that 91,799 drug overdose deaths took place in the U.S. in 2020, corresponding to a 30% increase compared to 2019; this rate of increase was reduced to 15% in 2021.

In 2020, 75% of all overdose deaths involved an opioid, while naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdose, was only administered in 19.8% of all drug-related fatalities, despite at least one bystander being present in 41.9% of cases.

“Racism, a root cause of health disparities, continues to be a serious public health risk that directly affects the wellbeing of millions of Americans, and, as a result, affects the health of our entire nation,” said Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC, said at a press conference. “The disproportionate increase in overdose death rates among Blacks and American Indian and Alaska Native people may partly be due to health inequities, like unequal access to substance use treatment and treatment biases.”

The report also shows that evidence of previous treatment for substance use was lowest for African-American individuals, at 8.3%, and highest for Caucasians, at 16.4%. It was also found that income inequality contributed to overdose deaths.

“Among Black people, overdose rates in counties with the most income inequality were more than twice those of counties that had less income inequality,” said Mbabazi Kariisa, the lead author of the CDC report.

Moreover, the rate of death for young people rose substantially for both populations. “Younger Black people, 15 to 24 years old, saw the largest increase in overdose deaths—86 percent,” Kariisa said. “Also notable, overdose death rates in Black men over 65 years old were nearly seven times as high as those in older white men.”

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug use had generally increased in the U.S. since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among Caucasian individuals aged 15 to 24, there was the largest relative rate increase of 34%. In all groups, the majority of individuals who overdosed had a history of substance abuse, while Caucasian individuals had the highest rate of substance abuse history (78.3%).

New research also demonstrates that indigenous individuals in the U.S. experienced the highest rate of overdose mortality in 2020, at 41.4 overdose deaths per 100 000 people, which was 30.8% higher compared to Caucasian individuals. Between 1999 and 2017, overdose mortality rates among indigenous individuals in the U.S. were similar to those experienced by Caucasians. However, rates per 100 000 among indigenous populations became disproportionately higher in 2019 and have been on the rise ever since.