(CN) – The number of people who died in the United States as result of overdosing on drugs – including illicit and prescription drugs – rose by 12 percent, though researchers say the number is likely higher, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The National Center for Health Statistics report said 68,400 people died of drug overdoses across the country between Oct. 2016 and Oct. 2017, a 12 percent increase from the 61,000 overdose deaths reported the year before.
Farida Ahmad, lead author of the report and director of mortality surveillance at the agency, said the provisional count is likely to underestimate the “true number” of deaths because each state and jurisdiction varies in the speed and manner of their reporting process.
The agency collects death certificates from all 50 states and jurisdictions and publishes provisional counts for deaths labeled as drug overdoses.
Drug overdoses are initially reported without a cause of death due to lengthy investigations and toxicology testing before final determinations are made.
“There are likely more deaths not reflected,” she said.
Additionally, the type of drug that was involved in the overdose won’t be immediately reported, Ahmad said, given the large number of overdose deaths where the type of drug is not listed on the death certificate.
“We might see ‘drug poisoning’ listed on the death certificate but won’t know for some time exactly which drug was involved,” Ahmad said. “Drug overdose deaths are often more investigated than heart disease or flu deaths, so they take time to complete.”
Drug overdose deaths may involve multiple drugs, further complicating the story behind the final numbers. Ahmad said the public can expect the final tally to be published by the end of the year.
The agency’s report found that opioids were involved in over 46,000 of the drug overdose deaths.
Forty percent of those deaths were from prescription opioids, equivalent to about 89 deaths per day, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Opioids are substances that work on the nervous system in the body or specific receptors in the brain to reduce the intensity of pain.
On May 3, the city of Los Angeles sued nine pharmaceutical companies in federal court, claiming the fraudulent and negligent business practices of Big Pharma led to the city’s opioid crisis.
Companies intentionally mislead doctors and patients about the appropriate uses, risks, and safety of opioid drugs and downplayed the high risk of addiction, the complaint said.
In California, overdose deaths increased by 5.1 percent, of which 0.5 percent of deaths were pending investigation, which Ahmad said is higher than other states.
Reports on the type of drugs involved in those deaths were not available for the current period.
Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, but there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain Americans report, according to the CDC.
According to the California Department of Public Health, 23.6 million Californians were prescribed opioids in 2016 and 2,031 deaths occurred as a result of overdose. Of those, 4.6 million prescriptions and 407 opioid-related overdose deaths occurred in Los Angeles County.
Prescription opioids include brand name pain medications OxyContin, Opana, Subsys, Fentora and Duragesic, as well as generics like oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl.
Prescription opioid overdose-related hospitalizations, drug treatment and emergency room visits in Los Angeles County have steadily risen over the years, according to the May 3 complaint.
The cost of opioid-related hospitalizations in Los Angeles County rose from $399 million in 2006 to $673 million in 2013.
A March 6 report by the CDC found that emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses increased 30 percent nationally between July 2016 and Sep 2017.
The city of also took legal action on May 9 against distributors and vendors of counterfeit, illicit and misbranded pharmaceuticals.