PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A new study of drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island finds that the proportion involving fentanyl is increasing, and around half of the accidental drug overdose deaths in the state from 2014 to 2016 were due to fentanyl.
“To see the proportion of overdose deaths increasing to over 50 percent in 2016 is very alarming,” said Brandon Marshall, assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University and one of the study’s authors. “We would be doing much better in addressing the overdose crisis if it weren’t for fentanyl.”
The study, published Wednesday in the International Journal of Drug Policy, provides another sign of fentanyl’s dramatic rise in overdose deaths. A handful of other states have reported similar increases in deaths related to fentanyl — the same opioid that killed the musician Prince — which can be 50 to 100 times as potent as morphine.
The researchers looked at all drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island from January 2014 to September 2016. During that period, they found a total of 778 overdose deaths, 46 percent of which were attributed to fentanyl. The number of deaths associated with fentanyl increased from 84 in 2014, or 35 percent, to 138 in the first nine months of 2016, or 56 percent.
The study also found that more than one in four of those who died of fentanyl-related overdoses were young, between the ages of 18 and 29. Marshall said that’s in contrast to non-fentanyl overdoses, which tended to skew older.
“This is really a new trend and something that is alarming. We need to focus our overdose prevention efforts in younger people now,” he said. “Fentanyl is just so deadly that the lifetime risk of death is now much younger.”
The researchers also found that cocaine, a non-opioid, was involved in a relatively high number of the fentanyl deaths. New York City health officials this month said provisional 2017 data suggests fentanyl is present in more than one-third of overdose deaths involving cocaine without heroin, and warned that recreational cocaine users are at “exceptionally high risk” of overdose.
“We’re looking at it more, but I think given the evidence in New York City, the message is that fentanyl can pop up in any kinds of illicit drugs,” Marshall said.
He added that it’s not clear whether it’s being put into cocaine purposely, or whether it’s inadvertent because of how the drugs are mixed and handled.