1 in Every 39 Americans Will Die of a Drug Overdose at Current Rate


Despite the passage of state and federal laws that were supposed to reduce fatal drug overdoses, the annual U.S. drug overdose death rate has quintupled over recent decades:

Over the most current year of available data, more than 110,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses, a rate of 33 per 100,000 population.

In order to measure these deaths in clear, relevant terms, Just Facts enlisted the expertise of a licensed actuary and a Ph.D. mathematician to calculate, double-check, and triple-check the average lifetime odds of dying of a drug overdose.

The shocking result of these calculations is that 1 in 39people will have their lives cut short by drug overdoses if the rate of such deaths stays at the current level. Those odds will become far worse if the rising trend continues. 

Context & Data Sources

The lifetime risks of tragic events are much more revealing than the raw numbers or annual rates commonly reported by government agencies and the media. This is partly because the U.S. is the third-most populous nation in the world, so tens, hundreds, or even thousands of events may amount to a very low risk.

The other reason, which is less obvious, is explained by a 1987 Department of Justice report on the likelihood of being a crime victim:

Annual victimization rates alone do not convey the full impact of crime as it affects people. No one would express his or her concern by saying, “I am terribly afraid of being mugged between January and December of this year.” People are worried about the possibility that at some time in their lives they will be robbed or raped or assaulted, or their houses will be burglarized.

Each month, the CDC estimates drug overdose deaths based on data reported by the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The latest estimates, which include deaths up through June 2023, show that 111,877 people died of a drug overdose in the prior 12 months.

To place such figures into the broader context of the U.S. population and people’s lifespans, Just Facts asked alicensed actuary to develop a method for calculating the average lifetime risk of death from various causes. The actuary used two separate methods, both of which yielded the same results. To further ensure accuracy, Just Facts had a Ph.D. mathematician check the formulas.

Applying this methodology to the CDC’s latest estimates of overdose deaths, roughly 1 in every 39 people will die of drug overdose if the rate of such deaths stays at its current level. (The data and calculations are available in this spreadsheet.)

Breaking down these deaths into major categories:

• 92% of fatal drug overdoses are accidental.

• 4% are suicides.

• less than 1% are homicides.

• 84% involve illicit drugs like fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and meth.

• 23% involve prescription drugs like codeine, hydrocodone, tramadol, and amphetamine.

• males are more than twice as likely to die of drug overdoses than females. 

Other than males and females, the categories above don’t sum to 100% because some overdose deaths are of undetermined intent and some involve a combination of illicit and prescription drugs.

Considered over the course of a lifetime, the average lifetime odds are currently about:

• 1 in 42 for accidental drug overdoses.

• 1 in 937 for suicidal drug overdoses.

• 1 in 46 for illicit drug overdoses.

• 1 in 171 for prescription drug overdoses.

• 1 in 29 for males.

• 1 in 64 for females.

Years of Life Lost

Beyond lifetime risk, another important measure of a mortal danger is the years of life that it robs from its victims. Because humans cannot prevent death but only delay it, there is a material difference between the tragic premature deaths of a 20-year-old in the prime of her life and a 90-year-old in poor health.

Although some leading medical scholars ignored that vital fact during the Covid-19 pandemic, a 1983 CDC reportabout fatal accidents explains that the “the allocation of health resources must consider not only the number of deaths by cause but also by age.”

The average age of people who die of drug overdoses is about 43 years, while the average U.S. lifespan is about 77 years. In contrast, the average age of people whose deaths involved Covid-19 is about 75 years. Yet, government officials locked down entire states for extended periods to prevent the spread of Covid, causing multitudes of collateral deaths. This likely included overdoses, which soared in the wake of these measures.

One of the most sinister elements of drug overdoses is that a single night of youthful indiscretion can end an otherwise promising life. This occurs when partygoers take what they believe to be a prescription pill that—unbeknownst to them—is laced with a highly toxic drug like fentanyl.

As explained by the authors of a 2022 paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health:

Adolescents are at a greater risk of death from substance use due to increased risk-taking behaviors, lack of experience, lower tolerance levels, and an optimistic bias that they are invincible to overdose.

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a research institute dedicated to publishing facts about public policies and teaching research skills.

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