Tennessee Department of Health data show 1,776 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses in 2017, the highest annual number of such deaths since reporting began. In Lincoln County, the number of drug overdoses from the most recent year, 2016, show eight deaths, more than double the previous year’s three deaths.

Prescription opioids are still the most common drugs associated with overdose deaths in Tennessee.

“More Tennesseans died last year from drug overdoses than from automobile crashes. Few of us have escaped a direct impact of this crisis in experiencing the tragic death of a family member, loved one or friend,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH.

“The good news is this has spurred us collectively to more action than ever before and while prescription drugs still account for the majority of deaths, there is new hope on the horizon in many areas. Prevention works, stigma is decreasing, treatment is effective and people get better.”


Overdose Deaths from Opioids

TDH data show almost three-fourths of drug overdose deaths in Tennessee in 2017 were associated with opioids. There were 1,268 overdose deaths associated with all opioids; of those, 644 were associated with prescription opioids for pain, which include drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and codeine. Prescription opioids for pain were associated with more overdose deaths in 2017 than any other group of drugs.

In Lincoln County, five of the eight drug overdose deaths in 2016 were attributed to opioids. Lincoln County had 40 nonfatal overdose outpatient visits and 21 nonfatal overdose in-patient visits.

“Our analysis of Tennessee drug overdose deaths underscores the need for our aggressive efforts led by Governor Bill Haslam to end the opioid crisis in our state by focusing on prevention, treatment and law enforcement,” Dreyzehner said. “Legislation to place reasonable limits and appropriate exceptions to the supply of prescription opioids to new patients, provide additional treatment resources for those struggling with substance abuse and implement new teaching and training protocols for health care providers will make a positive difference in the lives of Tennesseans.”


Overdoses Associated with Street Drugs

Deaths related to “street” drugs obtained without a prescription were a key driver of the increase in overdose deaths in Tennessee 2017. There has been a dramatic increase in deaths related to fentanyl, which is similar to heroin but much more potent and dangerous. Heroin was associated with the deaths of 311 Tennesseans in 2017, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. Fentanyl was associated with 500 deaths, a 70 percent increase since 2016.

In Lincoln County, no deaths were attributed to heroin or fentanyl.

Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid that may be made legally or illegally. Fentanyl is often used to “cut” or mix with other drugs; users have no way to know if it is included in a drug obtained illegally and if so, in what amount.

“You can’t know what you’re getting when you buy drugs on the street, and that makes them extremely dangerous,” said TDH Chief Medical Officer David Reagan, MD, PhD. “We are alarmed by the growing number of Tennesseans dying from drug overdoses, especially involving fentanyl. We must place additional focus on prevention of substance abuse.”

“We’re increasingly alarmed by the amount of fentanyl showing up in our state’s illicit drug supply,” said TBI Director David Rausch. “We remain committed to disrupting the supply of these types of dangerous drugs, as the newest data from our partners at the Tennessee Department of Health prove the danger is real, immediate and continuing to grow. That’s why we would urge anyone with a substance abuse problem, or anyone who knows someone who is struggling, to get help. Doing so may very well save a life.”

Substance abuse is a treatable and preventable disease. Call the Tennessee REDLINE at 1-800-889-9789 for immediate help for anyone suffering from a substance use disorder.