July 17 (Reuters) - U.S. overdose deaths dropped last year for the first time in nearly two decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday, in a sign that a nationwide epidemic of drug-related deaths is abating.
About 68,500 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2018, compared with about 72,000 the year prior, a 5% decrease, according to the CDC’s provisional data.
The drop marks the first time that the number of overdose-related deaths has fallen since 1999.
Some physicians describe the decrease as “encouraging,” but not worthy of celebrating.
“Overdose deaths are only one method to measure the epidemic,” said Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and author of “Drug Dealer, MD – How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop.”
Lembke said the number of people battling substance abuse was another crucial metric in evaluating progress in fighting the epidemic. That data is not included in the CDC’s figures.
But the number of people with a substance use disorder has also dropped. An estimated 19.7 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017, compared with 20.1 million in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
While the number of overdose deaths fell as a whole, the CDC data shows that deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants like methamphetamine and MDMA have actually risen from 2017 to 2018. (Reporting by Matthew Lavietes in New York Editing by Susan Thomas)