Opioid Study: Overdose Deaths Among Blacks Are Skyrocketing

Opioid Study: Overdose Deaths Among Blacks Are Skyrocketing

There’s a troubling new trend in the nation’s decades-long opioid epidemic: The rate of overdose deaths among Black Americans is skyrocketing, as overdose rates for other race groups are levelling off. 

The data comes from a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), published in the National Journal of Public Health, that looked at opioid-related death data from Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts and New York. It found while there was no overall change in the rate of overdose deaths in any of the four states, the rates of overdose mortality among Blacks increased by 38% overall. 

“This publication shows us that Blacks in the United States are bearing a disproportionate burden when it comes to the instance rate of opioid overdose mortality,” Dr. Redonna Chandler, director of the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Communities Study (HCS), told The News Station. 

The research was conducted as part of the HCS, an ongoing study exploring 67 communities disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic across Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts and New York. For the past two years the HCS — the largest study of its kind — has been exploring ways to better engage local communities being hit hardest by the scourge of the opioid crisis.

Blacks in the United States are bearing a disproportionate burden when it comes to the instance rate of opioid overdose mortality.

Dr. Redonna Chandler

In Kentucky and Ohio, the increase was most drastic. Overdose deaths among Blacks increased by 46% in the Bluegrass State, and its neighbor, the Buckeye State, witnessed a 45% spike. 

It was a different story altogether in the Northeast. In Massachusetts, researchers witnessed no change in overdose mortality rates for any race group. In New York, overdose rates among Blacks also showed no change over the two-year study, though the rates among all other races decreased. 

On Capitol Hill, many federal lawmakers were unaware of this new research, though a few told us they were eager to find out how this is happening, because this is something they’ve seen before. 

“If the Bronx was its own state it would have the second highest rate of opioid overdoses, second only to West Virginia, so it’s historically been like a huge problem,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The News Station after we informed her of the report. “So I’m interested in seeing whatever those recent numbers are.”  

“You’re pointing to data I wasn’t even aware of,” a visibly disturbed Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said when asked about the spike in Black overdoses by The News Station, as he made his way to a vote in the Capitol. “It’s troubling. It’s very troubling, especially because opioids were something that was hitting across the board.” 

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While the new report has yet to reach federal policy makers on Capitol Hill, in these local communities that are ground zero for the epidemic, first responders and public health officials are having to address this troubling trend, even as they don’t fully understand why it’s occurring. 

Dr. Chandler, who is spearheading the HCS’s effort to reduce overdose deaths by 40% in three years, says more research needs to be done to determine why this racial disparity in overdose mortality rates exists, a task she says is a priority for NIDA. It’s a job that will require more comprehensive and complete data on race and ethnicity than is currently available across the United States. 

“We’ve found by doing a deep dive into some of those data sources, including things like Medicaid data, which provides information related to things like treatment utilization, that the quality and the completeness of data for Race/Ethnicity is extremely variable across the four states participating in the HEALing Communities Study, and this is a marker for the variability that exists across the country,” Chandler says. “Without good data that is stratified by Race/Ethnicity it’s difficult to untangle the question of why is this happening and what can we do about it.”

While the study was published in September, its authors shared the data more than a year ago with community participants of the HCS – emergency room workers, primary care physicians, community groups and others – so they could address racial disparities in treatment as soon as possible. 

“We’ve used the data to go in and say, ‘This is happening, now let’s talk about how you see this playing out in your community,’” Chandler says. 

Overdose deaths among Blacks increased by 46% in the Bluegrass State, and its neighbor, the Buckeye State, witnessed a 45% spike. 

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A common focus in these community-level conversations is the equal distribution of resources like naloxone, medications for treating opioid misuse disorder and educational materials about overdose prevention, especially in communities that have uneven geographic distributions of race groups. 

The study’s results are already being incorporated into local, community-based interventions, but Chandler emphasizes to effect substantial and targeted change, researchers need more data on the racial gap for overdose mortality rates. 

“We’re looking out the rear-view mirror and seeing the devastation,” Chandler says. “I want to be able to look out the front windshield and see what we need to do to develop strategies that can prevent this – and we really need the data to be able to do that.”

Katherine Blesie is back on the East coast after a stint as a Bay-area-based journalist writing about society, politics, and the environment. You can read some of her work here: katherineblesie.com.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Katherine Blesie is back on the East coast after a stint as a Bay-area-based journalist writing about society, politics, and the environment. You can read some of her work here: katherineblesie.com.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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