Addiction and drug overdose affect the lives of millions of Americans and their families in the United States in any given year, across all demographics.
But research shows racial and ethnic minority communities have seen some of the highest spikes in drug overdose death rates — driven at least in part by the proliferation of illicit fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s about 50 times more potent than heroin, and is increasingly being found in batches of illicit drugs, such as meth and cocaine.
While race does not necessarily affect drug overdose rates, experts say certain social and economic factors associated with race may be key contributors.
Race, Ethnicity, And The Opioid Overdose Crisis
During the early years of the U.S. opioid epidemic, white Americans were affected by opioid addiction and fatal overdose at a disproportionately high rate.
For instance, a study published in JAMA shows that the overdose death rate among white Americans was twice that of Black Americans in 2010 — about a decade into the epidemic.
This initial disparity, affecting largely white, rural communities, led to a widespread characterization of the opioid epidemic as a “white” problem.
However, recent studies show that this is not the case, and racial and ethnic minority members may experience drug overdose at increasingly high rates.
The Overdose Crisis In 2021
Today, opioids are involved in a majority of U.S. drug overdose deaths, often in combination with other drugs, such as stimulants, benzodiazepines, and alcohol.
Over the years, the types of opioids driving drug overdose deaths have also shifted, from prescription opioids, to heroin, and now synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
This shift is one factor, among others, that researchers and healthcare professionals say has affected the demographics of the U.S. drug overdose crisis we face today.
What Factors Affect Overdose Rates In Minority Communities?
Race by itself does not affect drug overdose rates. What’s more influential, some researchers say, is the associated social, environmental, and economic factors.
Experts say that factors affecting overdose rates in minority communities include:
- rates of poverty and social inequality
- criminalization and higher rates of recent incarceration
- proliferation of illicit fentanyls in the illicit drug supplies
- less access to medical and behavioral healthcare services (including drug rehab and medication-assisted treatment)
- addiction stigma within minority communities
- racial disparities in addiction treatment (due to medical bias among healthcare providers)
- the shift away from prescription opioids as the driver of overdose deaths
- polysubstance use of opioids with other drugs, including meth, cocaine, benzodiazepines
These factors, however, can vary among different racial and ethnic minority groups.
Overdose Rates Among Black Americans
According to a cross-sectional study published in JAMA Psychiatry, overdose rates per 100,000 Black Americans rose 16.3% from 24.7 in 2019 to 36.8 in 2020.
This is a staggering increase from 2010, when data shows an overdose rate of 7.9 per 100,000 Black Americans.
According to the JAMA study, African Americans had the largest overdose death percentage increase in 2020.
Overdose Rates Among Native Americans
Native American communities have also seen high overdose death rates during the course of the U.S. opioid epidemic, often on par with, or above that seen among white Americans.
In 2020, the overdose death rate for American Indian/Alaskan Natives was 41.4 per 100,000 individuals — a rate 30.8 percent higher than that of their white counterparts.
Overdose Rates Among Hispanic And Latin Americans
Like with Black Americans, overdose death rates among Hispanics have risen sharply since 2015, when fentanyl became a primary driver of drug-related deaths.
Data from 2020 shows an overdose death rate of 17.3 per 100,000 Hispanic individuals — and a percentage increase of over 40 percent from the previous year.
Overdose Rates Among Asian Americans
Overdose death rates among Asian Americans have historically been lower than those among other racial and ethnic minority groups.
According to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed overdose data, the overdose death rate per 100,000 in 2020 was 8.5 for Asian men and 2.7 for Asian women.
Overdose Rates Among White Americans
In 2020, the overdose death rate was 31.6 per 100,000 white Americans, up from 15.8 per 100,000 a decade prior.
This rate demonstrates what researchers describe as a “reversal” of the overdose mortality gap seen between white and Black Americans in 2010.
Yet, while the rate of overdose mortalities is lower in white communities, the actual number of white Americans who died of drug overdose in 2020 is higher.
Overdose Prevention In Minority Communities
Over 93,000 Americans died of drug overdose in 2020 alone — and that number is expected to be even higher for the year of 2021.
While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wreaked devastation on communities globally, so too did an overdose crisis domestically.
Harm reduction strategies, such as naloxone distribution, and increasing access to life-saving addiction treatment are two key strategies identified for overdose prevention among minorities.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Drug Overdose Deaths
- JAMA Network — Evaluation of Increases in Drug Overdose Mortality Rates in the US by Race and Ethnicity Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- NPR — More Black Americans are now dying from drug overdoses than white
- Pew Research Center — Black men hit hardest by drug overdose deaths in recent years