What is an opioid? What is fentanyl / What are synthetic opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs created to reduce pain. They include the illegal naturally-occurring drug heroin, pain relievers available legally by prescription (i.e., OxyContin®, morphine, Vicodin®), and synthetic opioids, such as Fentanyl and Carfentanil, which are made illegally and distributed on the streets. Synthetic opioids are more potent, more prevalent (being laced into other drugs such as marijuana and cocaine), more profitable for drug dealers, and more deadly than their predecessors. One milligram of Carfentanil has a street value of $250, yet only 10-20 micrograms are potent enough to kill someone.

For the first time in Florida’s history more decedents were found with the drug fentanyl  in their system than with alcohol. Indeed, more people died from Fentanyl than all other opioids combined during the first six months of 2020.

Why? Prior to the COVID crisis, synthetic opioids were cut into other drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, and even illicit pharmaceutical pills found on the street. COVID exacerbated this trend: synthetic opioids are now laced into most of the illicit drug supply. As a result, recreational drug use is more deadly than ever as fentanyl has tainted the illicit drug supply in Tampa Bay.

Is the opioid crisis really an epidemic?

Epidemics are defined by the World Health Organization as “a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease—more than what’s typically expected for the population in that area.” In epidemiology this is the stage just before a health crisis becomes a pandemic. Nationally, at least 40 states have already reported increases in opioid-related fatalities. In Florida, actual drug overdose rates for 2020 are 43% higher compared to the same period in 2019, and projected overdose rates are estimated to reach 59%.


To put this into perspective, consider the following data from 2019:

  • More Americans die from opioid overdoses than die from traffic accidents or falls.
  • 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdose.
  • In Florida, someone dies every two hours from an opioid overdose.
  • In the Tampa Bay Region, nearly 3 people die each day from opioid overdose.
  • The opioid epidemic is more deadly than the HIV/AIDS pandemic

How does Tampa Bay compare to the rest of Florida and to the US?

The Tampa Bay Region fares worse than Florida and the United States when it comes to the rate of opioid and drug overdose deaths. Fatal opioid overdose rates–both within the region and the state–remain consistently higher than the national death rate for opioid overdoses. Year after year the opioid overdose fatality rate has increased, with the trajectory being steepest at the state level.

To find out more about opioid overdose rates in the Tampa Bay region and in Florida, check out our research reports.

How can we reduce opioid-related deaths?

Unlike other forms of overdose, opioid overdoses can be quickly reversible and death preventable. The overwhelming loss of life from the opioid epidemic has spurred life-saving innovations that reduce overdoses and overdose deaths. Naloxone, for example, is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose by binding to opioid receptors, reversing, and blocking the effects of other opioids. Presently, Naloxone comes in an easier-to-administer nasal spray and is being distributed and saving lives in many communities. Public health awareness campaigns and expansion of community-based and law enforcement deployment of Naloxone is necessary to increase access and save more lives.

Also, recent changes to the system of care within some behavioral healthcare systems align with best practices. They emphasize peer counseling and warm handoffs from Emergency Departments to treatment facilities. These changes, along with innovations in medication-assisted treatment — a combination of medication and counseling – have been shown to reduce death in OUD by 50%. Some barriers to providing these innovations include service reimbursement, licensing regulations, and organizational concerns within the behavioral/healthcare community. Within the broader community, bias against medication-assisted treatment has been identified as an obstacle for seeking intervention that aligns with evidence-based interventions. Most recently, the novel coronavirus pandemic has added additional constraints on available resources.

Who is becoming addicted and who is fatally overdosing?

Statewide demographic trends mirror the trends occurring nationally. The White, Non-Hispanic, working age male population is, and has historically been, over-represented in the number of fatal opioid overdoses for the past 30 years. Recently, however, members of communities of color within Florida have been outpacing the White Non-Hispanic population in the rate of increase of lives lost to opioid overdoses.

The period 2014 to 2018 saw an astounding 229% increase in the rate of Black Non-Hispanic Floridians dying from opioid overdose. This is the sharpest increase of any race/ethnic groups either nationally or statewide. The death rate for Black Non-Hispanics living in the Tampa Bay Region increased by 129% in a single year (2018-2019). This was far greater than the increase in death rate for any other group.

What is the economic cost of opioid addiction?

Not only does opioid addiction take an enormous toll on addicts, as well as their family and loved ones, but opioid addiction is also costly. Scholars have begun accounting for the cost to our nation, states, private industry, and individuals. Some of these findings, for example, show that in the Tampa Bay region, opioid use resulted in 33,288 – 35,201 fewer workers participating in the regional economy in 2015 and cost the region between $25.1 billion and $26.5 billion in economic output.

And in Florida, opioid use effected a 1.7% annual reduction in prime-age labor force participation rate and in 2015 this represented 128,800 fewer workers participating in the Florida economy, which cost the state $97.1 billion in economic output between 1999 and 2015.

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