Opioids: History, Impact, 
and Overdose Statistics

History of the Opioid Crisis

Opioids are a class of drugs that include several types of prescription painkillers, as well as the illegal drug heroin. Natural opioids, including heroin and morphine, are derived from the opium poppy. Synthetic opioids, which include fentanyl and carfentanil, are created in labs. 

People have known about the dangers of opium since ancient times. In Homer's The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus must rescue his crew from the land of the lotus-eaters, who become addicted to the poppy-like plants. Galen, a physician from the 2nd-century Roman Empire, may have helped popularize the use of opium as a painkiller, though he was also aware of its addictive potential.

During the 1800s, international trade in opium trade led to the establishment of opium dens throughout the world, with governments in many countries struggling to contain access to the drug. 

Many experts trace the roots of the opioid crisis to the overprescription of opioid pain relievers, beginning in the late 1990’s. Health experts now recognize that prescription opioids are dangerously addictive. Many doctors have taken steps to limit opioid prescriptions, and prescription rates have decreased every year since 2010.

But legal prescription opioids are just one side of the epidemic. Even as the prescription opioid supply is constrained, the illegal supply has rapidly expanded to meet the demand. Heroin and black-market fentanyl are often cheaper and more accessible than legal prescription opioids. Studies have shown that prescription opioid use is a strong predictor of later heroin use: three out of four new heroin users have reported previously abusing prescription opioids.

Mortality data from CDC Wonder. Note that rates for years with fewer than 20 deaths are not reported by the CDC due to unreliability.

The Impact in Albany County

In response to the growing opioid public health crisis and recommendations to improve the timeliness of reporting opioid-related data, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) Opioid Prevention Program provides opioid-related data to support statewide prevention efforts. These efforts include improving timely opioid overdose reporting to key stakeholders. This information is a valuable tool for planning and can help identify where communities are struggling, help tailor interventions, and show improvements

In accordance with the recommendations and legislation, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) is providing opioid overdose information (deaths, emergency department (ED) visits, and hospitalizations) by county. The reported cases are based on the county of residence. Opioids include both prescription opioid pain relievers, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine, as well as heroin and opium. 

Note: Data are suppressed for confidentiality purposes if there are fewer than 6 discharges.

Treatment Centers

The Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) addresses the prevention, treatment and recovery needs of New Yorkers with drug, alcohol and/or gambling addictions. Their mission is to improve the lives of all New Yorkers by leading a comprehensive premier system of addiction services for prevention, treatment, and recovery.

Overdose Deaths in New York

Opioid overdose deaths among New York State residents increased sharply in 2015 and 2016. The rate of overdose deaths involving any opioid in New York State was almost three times higher in 2016 (15.1 deaths per 100,000 population) than it was in 2010 (5.4 per 100,000). Although there have been increases in the number of deaths involving opioid overdose, some of the observed increase has likely been due to raised awareness of opioid overdoses, improvements in technology and resources for toxicology testing, and improved cause-of-death reporting.

By Demographics

In New York, men die more often from opioid overdoses than women. Rates for men have dramatically increased more than the rate for women. 

Breakdowns by race in New York largely mirror the nation as a whole. Whites have had the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths, and Asians and Pacific Islanders the lowest. (Due to low populations, no reliable data is available for American Indians and Alaskan Natives in New York.)

Note: to see data for different years, drag the time-slider beneath the charts.

By Drug Type

Deaths from both heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl have increased dramatically in New York in recent years. For both types of opioids, the age-adjusted rate in New York remains elevated above the national rate. 

About the Data

• Mortality data for opioid overdoses are from CDC: Wonder. Data was queried based on the following parameters for all opioids: Underlying Cause of Death (UCD), ICD-10 codes: F11.0, X40-X44, X60-X64, X85, Y10-Y14; and Multiple Cause of Death (MCD), ICD-10 codes T40.0-T40.4, T40.6. 

• Data on deaths, ED visits, hospital discharges, and treatment program admissions is from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) County Opioid Quarterly Report, published January, 2020. 

Number of Patients per Month data was supplied by the Albany County Department of Health. 

Additional Resources

New York State Department of Health: Addressing the Opioid Epidemic in New York State

OASAS: Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services