Fentanyl overdose becomes leading cause of death for adults age 18 to 45

Fentanyl overdose is now the leading cause of death for US adults ages 18 to 45, according to numbers from the CDC.

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Laura Leslie
, WRAL capitol bureau chief
Fentanyl overdose is now the leading cause of death for US adults ages 18 to 45, according to numbers from the CDC.
Official overdose numbers for 2020 were 40% higher than the previous year. Fentanyl was to blame for 73% of those overdoses. In 2021, preliminary data indicates fentanyl was involved in 77% of overdose deaths.

That 77% is a dramatic increase from the 31% of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths in 2016. The percentage has increased every year since, up to 53% in 2017, 56% in 2018 and 61% in 2019.

In North Carolina, more than 3,300 people died from overdoses in 2020.

Fentanyl is a cheap, potent and incredibly addictive narcotic – far stronger than oxycodone or hydrocodone. Even a small amount of it can be deadly. However, many people who die from fentanyl overdose never realized they ingested fentanyl. The less expensive drug is being cut into cocaine or pressed into ‘fake’ pills to pad the profits of drug cartels.

Wendy Thomas has experienced the loss firsthand. He son Matthew was just 20 years old when he died of an overdose.

According to Thomas, her son had bought Percocet (or oxycodone). But when she talked to the toxicologist, she was told he only had fentanyl in his system.

“When they mix up that fentanyl, and they make the pills, they know there's a certain number of number of people who are going to die. And they don't care. They just want to make money,” says Thomas. “So you know, Matthew's life was a cost of doing business.”

The anger and heartbreak motivated her to do something about it.

Thomas started a non-profit organization called Matthew’s Voice. She goes to schools in Lee County and talks to students about her son and the drug that killed him.

She’s also writing a curriculum unit for 9th graders that she's hoping school districts will adopt.

She says the state should be doing a lot more to educate people.

“I can only do so much as a mom and as an advocate,” she says. “We need a PSA at the state level. We need a PSA at the national level. The kids who are dying are the teenagers. They're the 20-somethings, and they need to be reached.”

Despite fentanyl overdose being the leading cause of death for such a large age group, Thomas fears the problem isn’t getting enough attention. She believes that's because people blame the drug users, rather than the drug sellers.

“I think it's because they think that people are doing it to themselves -- and they're not,” she says. “They're not asking to buy fentanyl. Should they be doing what they're doing? No. But they're also not asking to die.”

Just two milligrams of fentanyl — a trace amount — is considered a lethal dose, according to the DEA.

The problem is only getting worse. Preliminary 2021 data shows 3,900 North Carolinians died of overdoses last year – an increase of 18% over 2020.

That's 10 people a day, dying of something preventable.


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