Increased Drug Overdoses and Deaths Not Limited To High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Interview with:

Jeanine Buchanich, Ph.D. Deputy director of the Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Occupational Biostatistics and Epidemiology Research assistant professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Jeanine Buchanich

Jeanine Buchanich, Ph.D.
Deputy director of the Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Occupational Biostatistics and Epidemiology
Research assistant professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics
University of Pittsburgh What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Buchanich: Using the Mortality and Population Data System, a unique repository and retrieval system for detailed death data from the National Center for Health Statistics, housed at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, my team examined overdose deaths in the U.S. from 1979 to 2014. We started with 1979 because changes in reporting cause of death make it impossible to make comparisons with previous years. 2014 is the most recent year for which data are available.

The counties with the largest increases in overdose death rates were clustered in southern Michigan; eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania; eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and much of southeastern New York; and coastal New England. Counties in the Midwest, California and Texas have seen little to no increase in overdose death rates.

We cross-referenced the mortality data with counties in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, which was created by Congress in 1988 to provide 31 high drug-trafficking areas of the U.S. with coordinated law enforcement resources dedicated to reducing trafficking and production. High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas with high overdose death rates were mostly concentrated in Appalachia and the Southwest U.S., whereas such areas with lower death rates were near the borders in California, Texas and southern Florida. What should public health and law enforcement officials take away from your report?

Dr. Buchanich: Our research reveals several potential new drug overdose problem regions that warrant careful attention as they may not correspond to areas covered by federal resources to combat drug trafficking. Western Pennsylvania is one such area that is not considered to have high drug trafficking, but yet has one of the fastest growing drug overdose rates nationwide.

While resources are justifiably being targeted to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, they must also be allocated to counties outside those areas with rapidly increasing and currently high drug overdose rates. In addition, we found several demographic insights that could be used to guide prevention and drug intervention efforts, including that:

  • Since 1979, death rates increased for all age groups, with the smallest rate of growth in those older than 65 and the largest in 45 to 54 year olds.
  • In 1979, overdose deaths occurred most frequently among 25 to 34 year olds and blacks; in 2014, rates were highest among 45 to 54 year olds and whites.
  • Mortality rates were slightly higher in urban counties than rural counties.
  • Deaths due to overdose in women began increasing in the mid-1990s and increased dramatically in 2002; for men, the rates began climbing in the mid-1980s with a more rapid increase also beginning in 2002. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Buchanich: We’ll continue to build on this drug overdose research with funding from the Pitt Public Health opioid pilot grant program. These one-year pilot grant projects explore different areas of the opioid overdose epidemic with the goal of providing research-based information to guide public health interventions. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dr. Buchanich: Additional researchers on this study are Lauren C. Balmert, Donald S. Burke, M.D., and Gary M. Marsh, Ph.D., of Pitt Public Health; Janice L. Pringle, Ph.D., of Pitt’s School of Pharmacy; and Karl E. Williams, M.D., M.P.H., of the Office of the Medical Examiner of Allegheny County. Thank you for your contribution to the community.

If you find yourself facing legal action for a drug related crimes, such as possession of drugs, or are wrongfully accused of such a crime, you might want to see what an attorney can do to help you out.


PLoS One. 2016; 11(3): e0151655.
Published online 2016 Mar 10. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0151655
PMCID: PMC4786332

Patterns and Trends in Accidental Poisoning Deaths: Pennsylvania’s Experience 1979-2014

Lauren C. Balmert,1,* Jeanine M. Buchanich,1 Janice L. Pringle,2 Karl E. Williams,3 Donald S. Burke,4 andGary M. Marsh1

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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