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To reduce opioid overdose deaths, North Carolina lawmakers want to crack down on the people who distribute them.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican and co-sponsor of one of the bills, promoted it in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 9.
"North Carolina last year was second in the nation in overdose deaths," Brown told the committee in opening remarks.
Overdose death rates have increased in recent years as Americans have abused prescription painkillers and street drugs, such as heroin. Appalachian states are some of the most affected. As PolitiFact North Carolina has previously reported, statistics at one point showed that an average of four North Carolinians die from an overdose every day.
PolitiFact NC knows there’s a problem, and we won’t pass judgment on whether the bill is warranted. But we wondered if Brown’s claim about North Carolina’s ranking is accurate.
Turns out, he’s off.
NOT EVEN CLOSE
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal government agency, is the leading authority on mortality in America.
According to the most recent CDC data, which analyzed 2017 stats, North Carolina isn’t even in the top 10 for states with the highest drug overdose death rate.
That year, North Carolina had the 19th highest drug overdose death rate in the country and the 10th highest total number of overdose deaths.
West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and New Hampshire had the highest drug overdose death rates in the country. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, California and New York had the most drug overdose deaths.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research organization, uses data from the CDC and National Center for Health Statistics to track opioid overdose deaths, specifically.
Like the CDC, Kaiser’s most recent information is from 2017. That year, North Carolina didn’t rank among the 10 states with the highest rates for opioid deaths or total number of overdose deaths.
KFF reported that North Carolina in 2017 had the 16th highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the country and the 20th highest overdose rate from all drugs (not just opioids.)
WHAT BROWN SAID
Contacted by PolitiFact, Brown said he misspoke.
He meant to say, "In 2017, North Carolina had the second highest increase in the country in overdose deaths," he said in an email, emphasizing the word increase.
Brown cited a story by Charlotte-based radio station WFAE — "NC’s surge in rate of drug overdose deaths second highest in the U.S." — as his source.
Multiple media outlets, including the News & Observer, reported the CDC’s prediction in August 2018 that 2017 data would show North Carolina had the second-highest increase in drug overdose deaths that year. The CDC often reports provisional (or predicted) data before it finalizes the completed data.
In North Carolina’s case this time, the prediction turned out to be slightly off.
A CDC report of complete 2017 numbers found that NC had the fourth-highest increase in drug overdose deaths between calendar year 2016-2017. (The Kaiser review of 2017 also found that NC had the fourth-highest increase in drug overdose deaths, as well as opioid overdose deaths.)
And the most recent CDC data paints a rosier picture for North Carolina. Again using limited data, the agency reports that NC isn’t among the states with the highest reported overdose deaths or the largest increase in deaths between August 2017 and August 2018.
The CDC webpage, "Provisional drug overdose death counts," shows the percent change (increase or decrease) in reported drug overdose deaths between August 2017 and August 2018. The report shows Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Delaware and Hawaii as the states with the largest increases in drug overdose deaths.
To promote a controversial bill, Brown said North Carolina "last year was second in the nation in overdose deaths." That’s not true, and Brown said he misspoke. But even what he meant to say — that NC had the second-largest increase in total drug deaths — is based on an outdated stat. We rate his claim False.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email email@example.com.
Audio of the North Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee on April 9, 2019, in Raleigh
WRAL, "Victims' families push back on 'death by distribution' crime for drug dealers," published April 9, 2019
North Carolina Health News, "Lawmakers consider ‘death by distribution’ law," published on April 10, 2019
Email correspondence with Harry Brown, Republican North Carolina state Senator from Jacksonville in District 6.
Email correspondence with Craig Palosky, director of communications for the Kaiser Family Foundation
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Drug Overdose Mortality by State: 2017," "Statistically significant drug overdose death rate increase from 2016 to 2017, US States," "Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts," and "Stats of the State of North Carolina"
Kaiser Family Foundation, "Opioid Overdose Death Rates and All Drug Overdose Death Rates per 100,000 Population (Age-Adjusted)"
WFAE, "NC’s surge in rate of drug overdose deaths second highest in the U.S." published Aug. 16, 2018
News & Observer, "NC sees the nation’s second highest increase in opioid deaths," published Aug. 15, 2018.
PolitiFact, "How many people die every day from drug overdoses in North Carolina?" published April 13, 2017
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