Opioids could kill nearly half a million people across America over the next decade as the crisis of addiction and overdose accelerates.

Deaths from opioids have been rising sharply for years, and drug overdoses already kill more Americans under age 50 than anything else. STAT asked leading public health experts at 10 universities to forecast the arc of the epidemic over the next decade. The consensus: It will get worse before it gets better.

There are now nearly 100 deaths a day from opioids, a swath of destruction that runs from tony New England suburbs to the farm country of California, from the beach towns of Florida to the Appalachian foothills.


In the worst-case scenario put forth by STAT’s expert panel, that toll could spike to 250 deaths a day, if potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil continue to spread rapidly and the waits for treatment continue to stretch weeks in hard-hit states like West Virginia and New Hampshire.

If that prediction proves accurate, the death toll over the next decade could top 650,000. That’s almost as many Americans as will die from breast cancer and prostate cancer during that time period. Put another way, opioids could kill nearly as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has killed since that epidemic began in the early 1980s. The deep cuts to Medicaid now being debated in Congress could add to the desperation by leaving millions of low-income adults without insurance, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Even the more middle-of-the-road forecasts suggest that by 2027, the annual U.S. death toll from opioids alone will likely surpass the worst year of gun deaths on record, and may top the worst year of AIDS deaths at the peak of that epidemic in the 1990s, when nearly 50,000 people were dying each year. The average toll across all 10 forecasts: nearly 500,000 deaths over the next decade.

Beyond the immeasurable pain to families, the overdoses will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

Opioid overdose deaths: 10 projected scenarios.

Talia Bronshtein/STAT Sources: see below

In addition to the forecasts, provided by academics who specialize in epidemiology, clinical medicine, health economics, and pharmaceutical use, STAT conducted more than 40 interviews with politicians and patient advocates, providers and payers, doctors and drug makers. This analysis is also informed by a review of presentations from top Trump administration health officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, and the acting chiefs of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It took us about 30 years to get into this mess,” Robert Valuck, professor at the University of Colorado-Denver’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, told STAT. “I don’t think we’re going to get out of it in two or three.”

It’s already so bad that once unthinkable scenes of public overdose are now common: People are dying on public buses and inside fast-food restaurants. They’re collapsing unconscious on street corners and in libraries after overdosing on prescription pain pills, heroin, and fentanyl. A customer in Anchorage, Alaska, hit the floor of a Subway while trying to order a sandwich. A mom in Lawrence, Mass., sprawled in the toy aisle of a Family Dollar as her little girl screamed at her to wake up. A grandmother in East Liverpool, Ohio, slumped in the front seat of an idling car, turning blue, while a toddler in dinosaur pajamas sat in the back. 

There are so many deaths, some coroners are running out of room for bodies.

The most recent national statistics count more than 33,000 opioid-related deaths across the U.S. in 2015. Many victims are young, often in their 20s or 30s. Increasingly, many are white. But the plague touches all demographics: farmers and musicians, lawyers and construction workers, stay-at-home moms and the homeless.

Read next: 12 ways to slow the opioid epidemic

Most of the forecasts produced by STAT predict the annual death toll will increase by at least 35 percent between 2015 and 2027. Under the gravest scenarios, it could triple — to more than 93,000 deaths a year.

On this, all the experts agree: Fatal overdoses will not even begin to level off until sometime after 2020, because it will take time to see whether the federal government’s efforts to boost drug enforcement and push doctors to write fewer prescriptions for opioid pain pills are effective.

The worst-case scenario is built around the assumption doctors will continue to freely prescribe and that people addicted to opioids will continue to be exposed, perhaps unknowingly, to powerful synthetic compounds like carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer capable of killing a human with just a couple of grains.

Opioid deaths: Worst case scenario

Opioid deaths: Worst case scenario
Scenario 1: The opioid deaths forecast for 2027 is 93,613. The forecasted change is 183% since 2015 when it was 33,091. This curve assumes total drug overdoses climb at the same rate they have for decades. It’s also based on the assumption opioid deaths keep making up roughly the same percentage of all drug deaths. Natalia Bronshtein/STAT

The best-case projection has fatal overdoses falling below 22,000 a year by 2027. But experts say reaching that level would require a major public investment in evidence-based treatment options and a concerted push among medical providers to control pain with non-narcotic therapies before trying prescription opioids. Right now the U.S. spends about $36 billion a year on addiction treatment — and just a fraction of those in need are getting care.

By contrast, federal officials estimate that opioid abuse drains nearly $80 billion a year from the American economy because of expenses tied to health care, criminal justice, and lost productivity.

President Trump, who has vowed to make opioids a priority, has appointed a commission led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to explore solutions, but it hasn’t yet laid out its ideas — and in the meantime, the administration’s proposed budget would slash most domestic spending, which health advocates call profoundly counterproductive.

“Are we doing enough of what we think works — prescription drug monitoring programs, medication-assisted treatment, naloxone?” asked Dr. Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school of public health. 

“And,” Burke said, “are we matching the societal costs with a like expenditure in prevention?”

Opioid deaths: Best case scenario

Opioid deaths: Best case scenario
Scenario 10: The opioid deaths forecast for 2027 is 21,300. The forecasted change is -36% since 2015 when it was 33,091. ‎‎This curve assumes doctors prescribe fewer opioids, states embrace prescription drug monitoring programs, and insurers enact reforms to increase treatment access. Natalia Bronshtein/STAT

Ignoring clear signs of danger

The STAT analysis projects many painful years ahead. The roots of the crisis, though, stretch back generations to the 1980s, when pharmaceutical firms first marketed prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone to treat pain — and claimed they carried minimal risk for addiction.

Over the years these companies pushed hard to get pills in patients’ hands with strategies that included paying middlemen to circumvent state regulations and allegedly bribing doctors to prescribe opioids.

The result are staggering: Opioid prescriptions nearly tripled between 1991 and 2011.

It has been abundantly clear in recent years that such prescriptions can be dangerous. From 2005 to 2014, the rate of opioid-related emergency department visits nearly doubled, according to a new report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Yet as recently as 2015, doctors prescribed prescription painkillers to more than a third of American adults, despite limited upside for many patients.

Future of Opioids - Qt 1
Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

“It’s like cigarettes in the ’50s: We look back at the way people smoked and promoted cigarettes as laughably backwards — magazine ads with doctors saying, ‘Physicians prefer Camels,” Dr. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard University, said.

“We have the same thing now — Oxycontin ads in medical journals where doctors would say, ‘Opioids are good for treating pain. They don’t have addictive potential.’ It’s possible 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘I cannot believe we promoted these dangerous, addictive medications that are only marginally more effective.’”

The state of Ohio, among a handful of governments currently suing drug makers, alleges that a “well-funded marketing scheme” led to its residents receiving 3.8 billion opioid pills from 2011 to 2015, fueling “human tragedy of epic proportion.” Fatal drug overdoses in Ohio have soared by 642 percent since the turn of the millennium.

Another statistic: The number of privately insured patients diagnosed with opioid dependence increased nearly sixfold in just five years, according to data compiled by Amino, a health care data analytics company.

In 2012, only 241,000 such patients had an opioid dependency diagnosis. By 2016, that number was 1.4 million. And those numbers don’t even account for the hundreds of thousands more battling addictions while on Medicaid or Medicare, or while uninsured.


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The surging death toll, affecting growing numbers of white Americans, sparked demand for action in ways unseen during past epidemics that disproportionately affected minority populations. Law enforcement officers started shutting down pain clinics, known as “pill mills,” where doctors accepted cash for painkiller prescriptions. But that only accelerated demand for heroin, as pill mill patients had trouble finding treatment to break free from their addictions.

Desperate to keep feeding their cravings and avoid the anguish of withdrawal, people from all walks of life — soccer moms in Vermont, C-suite execs in California, college-bound kids in West Virginia — began to shift from prescription pills to heroin, which was more potent and had become far cheaper, thanks to heightened drug trafficking into the U.S. by cartels. Two years ago, heroin deaths surpassed the toll from prescription opioids for first time this millennium, according to the Washington Post.

“Thirty years ago, the heroin dealers drove through Arkansas” on their way to more populous and lucrative markets, Dr. G. Richard Smith, professor of psychiatry, medicine, and public health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told STAT. “That’s not the case now: People are switching from legal prescription meds, rightly or wrongly prescribed, to heroin.”

Future of Opioids - Qt 2
Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

A new threat rises 

Many of the experts STAT spoke with were even more concerned about the wave now crashing through communities: the synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, that have flooded into the U.S. from China and Mexico. They can be cheaper and even deadlier than heroin — and can be made at home or ordered online. Between 2013 and 2015, deaths linked to these potent opioids tripled to more than 9,000.

The drugs can be so deadly, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency this month urged first responders to carry naloxone in case they accidentally overdose while trying to help a victim — as has already happened to officers in Ohio and Maryland. The DEA also recommended first responders wear protective equipment such as safety goggles and masks, and in some cases full hazmat suits.

Because they’re so strong, synthetic opioids have spawned strings of mass overdoses in cities throughout the eastern half of the U.S.

Last summer emergency workers in Cincinnati responded to an unprecedented 174 overdoses in six days; this past winter, paramedics in Louisville scrambled to get to 151 overdoses over four days. In the small city of Huntington, W. Va., reports of 28 overdoses in five hours last August forced 911 dispatchers to send out every available ambulance to revive drug users who had passed out inside homes and on highways.

And the most potent synthetic opioids haven’t even penetrated all the markets in the U.S. yet.

“We’ve not seen the worst yet,” said Tim Robinson, CEO of Addiction Recovery Care, a Louisa, Ky.-based company that runs several rehab programs. “As we transition from heroin toward fentanyl and carfentanil, when it hits the rural areas in Appalachia, we’re going to see a lot more devastation.”

Already, a long trend of declining death rates for young adults has been reversed: Death rates for people ages 25 to 44 increased from 2010 to 2015 in nearly every racial and ethnic group, in large part because of drug and alcohol abuse, the Washington Post found. The New York Times recently reached out to hundreds of state and county health officials to piece together an estimate of total drug overdose deaths last year. Its projection: More than 59,000 fatalities, most from opioids.

Future of Opioids - Qt 4
Hyacinth Empinado/STAT

In an interview with STAT at a national drug abuse summit earlier this year, Dr. Patrice Harris, then chair of the American Medical Association, said one key to bringing down the death toll is to spread the word that addiction is a chronic medical condition, not a personal failing.

Another key: getting more people access to medications that can reduce cravings, such as buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone — and convincing both patients and providers that such treatments don’t simply amount to trading one addiction for another.

“Any physician in this country can prescribe oxycodone in high doses, but they can’t prescribe buprenorphine unless they have special training,” said medical epidemiologist Jay Unick of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “You just don’t have easy access to buprenorphine. And that’s crazy in a world flooded with opioids.”

The end result: waiting lists for treatment that can stretch for weeks or months.

In West Virginia, Marshall University student Taylor Wilson tried for 41 days to get treatment after nearly dying from an overdose. Her mother, Leigh Ann Wilson, finally got a call saying Taylor had cleared a buprenorphine waiting list. Her daughter had died four days earlier, from another overdose.

A landmark report last year from then-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy found only 10 percent of the estimated 2.2 million Americans with an opioid-use disorder have received addiction treatment.

“We know what works,” Murthy said this past April. “We’re just not doing enough of it.”

Read Next: 12 ways to slow the opioid epidemic

STAT reached out to dozens of public health experts, seeking thoughts on the arc of the opioid epidemic. Experts at 10 universities responded, spending weeks developing forecasts for the death toll over the next decade. Some created models that focused on the spread of fentanyl and trends in pain pill prescriptions; others looked more widely at trends in interventions, such as access to naloxone and medication-assisted treatment. Here’s a list of those contributing forecasts:
— University of Pittsburgh: Dr. Donald Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health; Jeanine Buchanich, research associate professor
— University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences: Brad Martin, professor, division head of pharmaceutical evaluation and policy at the College of Pharmacy; Corey Hayes, Ph.D. student
— University of Virginia: Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics
— Ohio State University: Dr. William Miller, professor and chair of the division of epidemiology, College of Public Health
— Harvard University: Dr. Michael Barnett, assistant professor, department of health policy and management at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health
— Brown University: Brandon Marshall, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health
— University of Colorado, Denver: Robert Valuck, professor in the departments of clinical pharmacy, epidemiology, and family medicine at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy; Rebecca Helfand, evaluation manager, Colorado Department of Human Services
— University of California, San Francisco: Dr. Dan Ciccarone, professor of family and community medicine, principal investigator of the NIH-funded Heroin in Transition study
— University of Maryland, Baltimore: Jay Unick, medical epidemiologist, School of Social Work
— Johns Hopkins: ‎Caleb Alexander, associate professor of epidemiology and medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health

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  • So much talk about drugs and with such understanding, and yet you know nothing about what can be of the most help in this drug war. Rather than solving problematic drug use, the war on drugs has metastasized into a decades-long national and global disaster. It has criminalized a public health issue and inflicted death, incarceration, and untold billions in wasted US tax dollars on multiple generations of Americans. Enough is enough. If you are not a part of the solution then you are part of the problem, not one word about Cannabis (the blind leading the blind), a part of the solution you are not.

    • Cannabis? If marijuana helped my chronic back pain, I’d smoke it, but I see pot as mostly just a recreational drug that many people are calling “medicine” in order to legalize and legitimize it. Personally, I think an adult has just as much right to get stoned at home as he does to get drunk, but it’s not “medicine” except in a very limited number of ailments. I don’t like getting stoned, so I tried CBD oil… the stuff that doesn’t get you high, but supposedly has medicinal benefits. It didn’t do a damned thing for my back pain, but after smoking quite a bit of it for a couple of weeks, it did eventually manage to give me a case of the hives. Oxy works, but use it responsibly. It’s a shame so many people can’t manage to do that without screwing it up for those who can.

  • I suppose you could blame all kinds of human behavior on genetics, but from a legal standpoint, the law still holds everyone accountable for their actions, and so should you. She stole your meds and left you to suffer. That’s not acceptable or excusable.

  • Very good comments. I am a 72 year old with severe poly arthritis. Doesn’t sound like much, but the “poly” means 5 or more types of arthritis. It has spread to encompassing most joints from my left side to my right and from my shoulders to my feet. My doctor does the best he can, allowing me 2 Norco per day. I fill in the other times with
    Ibuprophen and a good sleeper at bed time. Why do I write these details? I don’t really know. Maybe the following will tell.
    When I was a preteen, my mother was an alcoholic. The cure for that was heavy doses of Miltown (heavy duty tranq.) When I had to go to the pharmacy every other day to pick up #11503 (her Rx number) of 30 tabs, my Dad got another doctor involved and after 3 months of “rehab”, mom never took another drink or Miltown. She lived 38 more years. More recently, my older sister quit drinking – 3 separate times. The last was in an assisted living facility where she will probably spend the rest of her life. Alcohol and whatever drug she could find. As for me? I rarely drink and stick to my 2 Norco, religiously. Dad – one beer per day.
    A few years back, a dear friend (M) was diagnosed with Stage 4, malignant melanoma. He was 35. After several surgeries and other treatments, he was sent home to die. He had a prescription for hydrocodone. At least once a week, his wife (H) would come over to “borrow” a few of my Norco. As I new him well and his mother was my best friend, I gave her a few, expecting to get them back. Then my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. He had surgery in a hospital 200+ miles away. When he came home, he had a manufacturer’s sealed bottle of Norco. Rather than having open bottles all over, we both used one bottle.
    M&H took care of our pets as they lived only blocks away. As we knew my husband would be in for at least one more surgery, I told them to keep the key for now. 3 months later it was another surgery. M&H took care of our pets again. It wasn’t until about 4 months later (M had passed) that we went to open the latest bottle of Norco. We couldn’t find it anywhere. Thought we had accidentally tossed it. Then, M’s mother called me. H had been arrested breaking into a neighbor’s house to steal his Vicodin!!! (Cancer)
    Her sentence? Rehab. She went to South America for Rehab. 2 months after rehab, she drove her car off a cliff with their 6 year old daughter in it. Fortunately injuries were minor. Last time I saw her she looked skinny, pale and, well, you know the rest. We changed all locks.
    As the daughter of an alcoholic, etc., I have found that certain people have a genetic predisposition to addiction. Mom passed it on to my sister, but I got Dad’s genes (I even look like him 🙂 ) and am very happy I did.

  • Thanks for adding more hysteria about the “Opioid Epidemic,” without making any distinction whatsoever between people who have permanent, irreversible injuries and use opioids responsibly in order to manage that pain, and the people who are simply on a constant mission to get high by any means possible. It’s NOT the chronic pain patients who are responsibly using their doctor-managed medications as intended, who are the problem, yet you want to lump us in with heroin addicts and illegal-produced Fentanyl users. My risk of overdosing from the small amount of Oxycodone I have to take just to get through life every day, is miniscule. At seventy years old, I’ve been literally breaking my back to serve everyone else in my physically demanding profession, and what have I got to show for it? A life of pain, and people like Max Blau, who’s picture indicates he’s much younger and hasn’t had adequate time to tear his back up yet. Of course pounding out one-sided hysterical articles like this on a keyboard is hardly back-breaking work anyway. You don’t get it, Max. Even in the unlikely event that I did overdose of 45 mgs of oxycodone in 24 hours, I’d rather be dead than live with the unrelenting misery of my back injury left untreated, Try getting both sides of the picture, and show a little empathy for those of us who have to live this way. If you’re ever unfortunate enough to suffer a life-changing injury that leaves you in constant pain, I guarantee you you’ll change your misguided opinions about responsible drug uses in a hurry.

  • With the idea that so many are dying and these new policies will address that huh?
    No. No it will not!
    and you policy makers know it!
    what will happen is without the rehab these people need (that nobody wants to address) they will turn to the streets, or they will turn to suicide. Funny whenever I try to find information about HEROIN overdoses….just can’t find any up to date numbers. from three years ago? when, with these new laws, you know that the heroin overdoses will SPIKE!!!
    so either way…these people will suffer or will end up dead anyways.
    too bad nobody can stop them. they have everyone brainwashed to believe this will help.
    NOPE. rehab,education, and help patients wean off drugs. Not jail and withholding medication from people who are literally dying from cancer and on Hospice, because it is happening.
    Add it up, think real hard. is any of the WAR on Drugs been successful?
    No. but Sweden had it figured out.

  • A recent article by Sol Rodrigues in the Los Angeles Daily News is very worth reading: “Consider Different Approach To Combating Opioid Crisis”. I’ve posted the following extract to my Facebook timeline and elsewhere:

    Critical to any meaningful discussion of opioids is dispelling the notion that opioids themselves are the core of the problem. Opioids, a drug category which includes opium derivatives like heroin and morphine and semi-synthetic drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone, have been used for thousands of years for pain relief.

    Beginning in the mid 1990s, there was a notable surge of opioid prescriptions. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, between 1991 and 2013, the number of prescriptions for opioids grew from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013.

    As tempting as it is to ascribe most of the blame for the opioid crisis to this increased prescribing of opioids, this isn’t quite accurate. Citing research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, [ the Global Commission on Drug Policy] notes people prescribed opioids for legitimate problems aren’t the ones getting addicted, with upwards of 70-80 percent of misusers obtaining the drugs without a prescription.

    The commission notes that the confluence of a wide availability of prescription opioids, coupled with rising economic inequality, diminished job prospects and long-term unemployment in regions across the country, contributed to a situation where more people turned to opioids for relief or money.

    Full article at http://www.dailynews.com/2017/10/20/consider-different-approach-to-combating-opioid-crisis/

  • Laurie-
    I have left previous blogs agreeing with you. Patients who have taken small doses of opiates for years, and aren’t addicted, are being denied. As well, a patient without addiction had a flare of chronic back pain and turned out to have a kidney cancer, finally discovered at a hospital after being refused any rx at multiple clinics, dying less than a week later. Dr.s are fearful of prescribing, which is wrong. They decide like one group clinic here that they will help addicts with buprenorphine, but won’t manage pain in their clinic. (about 40% of patients, addicts or not, have pain when they go to the Dr.). For these Dr.’s patients it is back to the curmudgeon days when we knew they didn’t all have the pain they were reporting. So, what do we do.
    Now we have a safe pain medication, buprenorphine, any Dr. can prescribe for pain, and is FDA approved, such as Belbuca. Other alternatives like Toradol for acute pain are likewise available. When patients are taking buprenorphine, many physicians still don’t know how to handle their more severe pain. Many insurances and most state medicaid insurance still won’t pay for it for pain, only addiction.
    Docs need more education so they won’t take care of patients’ pain by being unwilling participants, but by acquiring knowledge & confidence, and realizing their patients can’t be all treated by a few pain specialists. Recently a 4th yr student at my med school told me she got only 1 hr education on addiction, a condition that affects 15% of the population. That pattern must change. We will get better, but in the meantime, look for a doc that cares about you. We are out here.
    As far as the “epidemic”, call it what you want, but it is here. The reaction by the CDC to set rules on doses without proper education created fear by docs they will hurt patients, or lose their licenses, so the natural reaction is to withdraw and we get an overreaction you so rightly are upset with.

  • @maxblau , I hope you’re reading ALL the comments very carefully. There is no opioid epidemic — addiction cannot be transferred by contact like the flu or AIDS. What we have is a full-blown opioid PANIC as well as a miserable abandoned pain patient PANDEMIC. CDC guidelines are built on falsehoods, lies, and misleading statistics that are not based on fact. So while America pretends to want to “help” prevent addiction, its focus is actually on eliminating the disabled, sick, elderly, impoverished population, one that cannot fight back — all for $$$. America does not not acknowledge that TORTURE IS ILLEGAL, and depriving pain patients of medicine that WORKS will not save a single addict. In fact, overdose and suicide deaths are UP because of these policies!!! #OurPain #FireKolodny #patientsnotaddicts #firechrischristie

  • How about Krokodill? Opioids prescribed if stopped will trigger illegal drug use to survive. How a human being could take such a horrible drug unless there is no other option for survival? How did it sneaked into Russia and what are the chances of happening to Americans.

  • You could alleviate the problem by using marijuana for pain. It is very effective at alleviating pain. Because of the ignorance of our government ,we are not even doing research on marijuana. research is being done in Isreal,even by U.S.big pharma. Google marijuana Isreal for info. Contrary to opinion it is not addictive and will not lead to hard drugs such as opiods or heroin. Please go to Isreal marijuana research. The reason of Israel is that is where the leading research by the leading people on the subject are located. The professor that isolated and named the THC in marijuana has been studying it for 50 years and is the leading expert.

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