White people have a painkiller problem. According to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, painkiller overdoses accounted for almost 17,000 deaths in 2011. The majority of deaths were among whites, at a rate that’s growing faster than for any other racial group.
From 1999 to 2011, drug overdoses involving opioid painkillers increased more than fourfold among white people. The rate for blacks, which was lower to begin with, more than doubled in the same period. The opioid overdose rate for Hispanics has increased only slightly.
Part of the pattern documented in the CDC’s report may reflect regional variation and illicit drug preferences. The epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse began largely in rural, white areas such as Kentucky and West Virginia but has since spread to other regions. In some places such as Florida, law enforcement crackdowns on pill mills show signs of slowing the epidemic.
The latest CDC report covers only prescription painkillers. It doesn’t tally deaths from such illicit drugs as heroin, but earlier CDC research shows that whites account for most of the recent increase in heroin overdoses as well. When looking at overdoses from all types of drugs, whites still had the second-highest death rates in 2010 (exceeded only by native Americans).