Overdose Deaths From Counterfeit Prescription Pills Rising: CDC

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Sept. 1, 2023 -- Overdose deaths from counterfeit prescription pills more than doubled in recent years, the CDC reported. 

From July to September 2019 to October to December 2021, the number of people who died from a drug overdose and showed evidence of counterfeit pill use went from 2% to 4.7%, the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The problem was especially acute in the Western jurisdictions, where the rate more than tripled, going from 4.7% to 14.7%. 

Overdose victims were often Hispanic with a history of drug use and drug use by smoking, the CDC said. About 57% of those counterfeit pill overdoses involved people younger than 35. 

The people who overdosed often thought they were taking oxycodone or Xanax manufactured by pharmaceutical companies but actually took a fake pill made to look like the real thing that was laced with other drugs. In 93% of the overdose deaths, the fake pills were laced with fentanyl.

"People don’t always know what’s in them," Julie O’Donnell, PhD, an author of the new report and an epidemiologist in the CDC’s division of overdose prevention, told NBC News. "The risk of overdose is heightened among people who think that they’re using legitimate pharmaceutical pills."

The CDC’s data comes from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS), which uses information from death certificates, coroner’s reports, toxicology reports, and witness accounts. O’Donnell told NBC News the statistics are "definitely an underestimate."

The CDC said “overdose prevention messaging” that highlights the dangers of fake pills could help prevent overdose deaths.