US drug overdose deaths fell slightly in 2018

It marks first such drop in decades

By Ben Tinker, Jacqueline Howard and Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN, Ashley Harding - Reporter

(CNN) - Drug overdose deaths in the United States declined 5.1% in 2018, according to preliminary data released Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

The slight decline in drug overdose deaths marked the first such drop in decades.

"The reason to be hopeful is that for the past 25 years every year we experienced an increase in overdose deaths. This is the first time in 25 years that overdose deaths will not have increased and have come down a little bit," said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Kolodny was not involved in the new data.

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates there were 68,557 drug overdose deaths in 2018. An estimated 47,590 involved opioids, and 31,897 involved synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and tramadol.

The data will not be finalized until next year.

"There's light at the end of the tunnel," Kolodny said, but he added, "there's certainly nothing to celebrate because even with the slight reduction we're still experiencing an enormous death toll."

Additionally, "when you look at the national data, it masks what's happening on a regional level and on a state level," he said.

For instance, the mortality rate from synthetic opioids in 28 states more than doubled every two years from 1999 to 2016, according to a study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open in February. At the national level, opioids were responsible for shaving 0.36 years off Americans' life expectancy in 2016, the study said. That's a greater loss of life than caused by guns or motor vehicle accidents.

Opioid prescribing has dropped since the CDC issued opioid prescribing guidelines in early 2016, which resulted both in doctors prescribing fewer opioids as well as insurers providing less coverage for opioids.

Florida, Georgia breakdown 

While some states like Missouri saw increases in overdose deaths, the CDC found encouraging results in Florida and Georgia.

There was a 10.2% drop from 5,440 overdose deaths in 2017 to 4,936 in 2018 in the Sunshine State. Data from the CDC showed Georgia saw a 9% drop in death from 1,536 in 2017 to 1,381 last year.

To see the full report, visit: CDC Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts

CNN's Nadia Kounang contributed to this report.

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