Health and Science

More millennials, Gen Z are dying of opioid overdoses, researchers say

Key Points
  • The nationwide opioid epidemic has led to a sharp increase in the death rate for overdoses by teens and young adults, according to a new study.
  • Most of those deaths were from the use of opioids, both prescription and illicit, such as heroin, the researchers say.
Attorney General Maura Healey hugs Paula Haddad, whose son Jordan died from opioids at the age of 26, as Healey entered the courthouse at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston for a status update on the Attorney General's suit against Purdue Pharma on Jan. 25, 2019.
Suzanne Kreiter | Boston Globe | Getty Images

The nationwide opioid epidemic has led to a sharp increase in the death rate for overdoses by teens and young adults, according to a study published Thursday.

Death rates from drug overdoses for people ages 15 to 24 rose by 19.75% from 2006 to 2015, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Researchers at the nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland reviewed millennial and Gen Z mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

During the study period, 36,422 adolescents and young adults in the United States died of drug poisoning.

Most of the deaths from drug overdoses were from opioids, prescription and illicit drugs like heroin, the researchers said. Death rates from opioid use rose by an average of 4.8% annually over the same time period, with an even steeper increase of 15.4% a year between 2013 and 2015.

"The surge in drug poisoning deaths among adolescents and young adults reflects the ease of access to pharmaceutical drugs, especially prescription opioids and later transition to more potent opioids," said Dr. Bina Ali, the lead author of the study.

The new data highlights how the crisis is impacting American families. It also provides U.S. prosecutors more ammunition in their legal fights against the companies and health-care professionals accused of helping fuel the epidemic, which kills roughly 130 Americans every day.

On Tuesday, a former CEO of Rochester Drug Cooperative, one of the nation's largest drug distributors, was indicted on what prosecutors say are the first criminal charges against an executive of a drug company to stem from the opioid epidemic. In addition the federal government reached a $20 million settlement with the company over its alleged role in the crisis.

Separately, federal prosecutors last week charged 60 doctors, pharmacists and other licensed medical professionals across five states in connection with illegally prescribing more than 32 million pain pills.

The indictments came as some 1,600 cases against OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers are being consolidated and transferred before a judge in the Northern District of Ohio, and New York and other states begin their own massive legal fights.

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In the study, researchers said it appeared young people were typically introduced to opioids through prescription drugs, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, a highly addictive narcotic produced by Purdue Pharma. The young adults often misused these drugs with motivations to "relieve pain, relax, feel good, or get high."

Researchers also found that drug overdoses were highest among whites and Native Americans at 11.9 deaths and 10 deaths for every 100,000 people, respectively. That compares with 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people for African Americans and 4 deaths per 100,000 people for Hispanics.

New York had the highest increase in the drug overdose death rate, up 9.4% each year during the period. This was followed by Ohio, Massachusetts, and New Jersey with 9.1%, 9% and 8.7% increases annually, respectively, according to the research.