Pharmaceutical companies are facing lawsuits over the marketing of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin. (Toby Talbot / AP)

New data collected and analyzed by The New York Times suggests that 2016 had the largest annual increase in drug overdose deaths ever recorded in the United States, with deaths likely exceeding 59,000. If this number is accurate, deaths due to drug overdose rose by almost 20 percent from 2015 to 2016. The Times writes:

Because drug deaths take a long time to certify, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will not be able to calculate final numbers until December. The Times compiled estimates for 2016 from hundreds of state health departments and county coroners and medical examiners. Together they represent data from states and counties that accounted for 76 percent of overdose deaths in 2015. They are a first look at the extent of the drug overdose epidemic last year, a detailed accounting of a modern plague.

The Times writes that while heroin often is the cause of drug overdose deaths, the 2016 spike in drug overdose deaths is also linked to the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic prescription painkiller that has made headlines for its abundance—and its deadliness. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and is often sold on the streets to consumers unaware of its lethality.

“In some Ohio counties, deaths from heroin have virtually disappeared. Instead, the culprit is fentanyl or one of its many analogs,” The Times says. “In Montgomery County, home to Dayton, of the 100 drug overdose deaths recorded in January and February, only three people tested positive for heroin; 99 tested positive for fentanyl or an analog.”

This new data comes days after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine sued five pharmaceutical companies, alleging the companies “helped unleash a healthcare crisis” through “a marketing scheme” that purposely misled doctors and patients about the addictive nature of opioids such as fentanyl.

Ohio is considered the epicenter of the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States. The Times estimates that in Ohio, “overdose deaths increased by more than 25 percent in 2016.”

DeWine’s lawsuit follows similar suits filed in Illinois and Mississippi. In 2015, the state of Kentucky settled with pharmaceutical companies Purdue and Janssen for tens of millions of dollars.

“These drug companies have not been responsible enough,” DeWine said in a recent interview. “I think everybody in public office needs to be talking about this opioid crisis … every public official as well as every citizen needs to do everything that they can to try to turn this thing around.”

Critics allege that President Trump, despite campaign promises to end the opioid epidemic, is failing to take federal action. His budget calls for a minor reduction to the allocation for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, although the cut isn’t nearly as deep as earlier drafts of the budget indicated it would be. Critics also have condemned the harsh drug enforcement policies of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as the stance on addiction treatment put forward by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Are there any positive takeaways from the Times’ preliminary findings?

“This exponential growth in overdose deaths in 2016 didn’t extend to all parts of the country,” the Times writes. “In some states in the western half of the U.S., our data suggests deaths may have leveled off or even declined.”

However, the Times concludes that “early data from 2017 suggests that drug overdose deaths will continue to rise this year.”

A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the Times: “It’s the only aspect of American health that is getting significantly worse.”

Read the full report here.

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