Drug overdose deaths in the United States dropped slightly for the first time in three decades, but fatal overdoses linked to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rose, according to a report released Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The results, based on 2018 data, show mixed results in the nation’s drug war.
Overall, the number of drug overdose deaths fell from 70,237 in 2017 to 67,367 in 2018, a 4.1 percent decline, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reported.
The decline represents the first year-over-year decline since 1989-1990, according to the report.
Deaths linked to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its analogues — substances chemically similar to fentanyl — increased 10 percent from 2017 to 2018.
However, the total number of opioid-involved deaths dipped slightly to 46,802 in 2018, down from 47,600 in 2017, according to the report.
Overdose deaths involving heroin dropped by 4 percent in 2018 while deaths from painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone decreased by 14 percent.
Cocaine-involved deaths are increasing at a dramatic rate, tripling between 2012 and 2018, the report said. Deaths linked to methamphetamine jumped 30 percent during the same period.
The decline in overdose deaths has led to a slight increase in life expectancy in the United States in 2018, researchers said. The U.S. life expectancy in 2018 was 78.7 years. That’s an increase of 0.1 year compared to a life expectancy of 78.6 years in 2017.
Brett Giroir, assistant Health and Human Services secretary for public health, said preliminary data from the start of 2019 indicate that “mortality rates continue to drop.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the improvement is due to President Trump’s focus on treating drug addiction as a public health emergency. She cited his awareness campaigns, request for treatment dollars from Congress and reforms that curtail excess pain pills or the flow of illicit drugs from China, Mexico and other places.
“This has not happened through coincidence,” she said of improving numbers.
Mrs. Conway said overdose deaths are down from their peak in states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and North Carolina. Four of those states happen to be critical to Mr. Trump’s reelection chances.
Officials said far too many people are still dying from drug overdoses — enough each year to fill up the stadium that will host the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“It absolutely is a turning point, but we have to look at the complexity of the problem,” Mr. Giroir said.
Regina LaBelle, a former official in the Obama Administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the data encouraging, but she said it shows more hard work needs to be done.
“The slight decrease we’re seeing in drug overdose death rates in 2018 is a positive sign, as is the halt to the decrease in life expectancy in the US,” Ms. LaBelle said. “But we’re still a long way from declaring victory in our efforts to stem overdose death and addiction in this country.”
The U.S. Postal Service is still struggling to keep up with the STOP Act, a law that requires USPS to compel advanced electronic data on 100% of all foreign packages. The data help customs agents pick out and scrutinize packages that may contain fentanyl or other dangerous drugs.
Congress last year mandated the post office to hit incremental benchmarks for gathering advanced data.
A Senate GOP aid familiar with the process said as of November 2019, the postal service was collecting advanced data on 65% of all foreign packages and 81% of China, or shy of the mandated 70% and 100%, respectively.
White House officials said they still hope they can gather advanced data on all packages by the end of the year, as mandated by the law.
“That’s our goal,” said James W. Caroll Jr., director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The postal service must start to refuse packages in 2021 if they don’t have full compliance from foreign shippers.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.