While the overall death toll is still higher for whites, it's increasing faster for Latinos and blacks.
This article first appeared May 17, 2018 on Kaiser Health News.
The tall, gangly man twists a cone of paper in his hands as stories from nearly 30 years of addiction pour out: the robbery that landed him in prison at age 17; never getting his high school equivalency diploma; going through the horrors of detox, maybe 40 times, including this latest bout, which he finished two weeks ago. He's now in a residential treatment unit for at least 30 days.
"I'm a serious addict," said Julio Cesar Santiago, 44. "I still have dreams where I'm about to use drugs, and I have to wake up and get on my knees and pray, 'Let God take this away from me,' because I don't want to go back. I know that if I go back out there, I'm done."
Santiago has reason to worry. Data on opioid addiction in his home state of Massachusetts show the overdose death rate for Latinos there has doubled in three years, growing at twice the rates of non-Hispanic whites and blacks.
Opioid overdose deaths among Latinos are surging nationwide as well. While the overall death toll is still higher for whites, it's increasing faster for Latinos and blacks, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Latino fatalities increased 52.5 percent from 2014 to 2016, compared with 45.8 percent for whites. (Statisticians say Hispanic overdose counts are typically underestimated.) The most substantial hike was among blacks: 83.9 percent.
The data portray a changing face of the opioid epidemic.
"What we thought initially, that this was a problem among non-Hispanic whites, is not quite accurate," said Robert Anderson, mortality statistics branch chief at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. "If you go back into the data, you can see the increases over time in all of these groups, but we tended to focus on the non-Hispanic whites because the rates were so much higher."
There's little understanding about why overdose deaths are rising faster among blacks and Latinos than whites. Some physicians and outreach workers suspect the infiltration of fentanyl into cocaine is driving up fatalities among blacks.
The picture of what's happening among Latinos has been murky, but interviews with nearly two dozen current and former drug users and their family members, addiction treatment providers and physicians reveal that language and cultural barriers, even fear of deportation, could limit the access of Latinos to lifesaving treatment.
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.