Alarming Surge in Fentanyl Pill Seizures Underscores Urgent Need for Public Health Response

A recent NIH-funded study has revealed an alarming increase in law enforcement seizures of illicit fentanyl in the U.S., particularly in pill form, between 2017 and 2023. The findings, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, highlight the growing danger of the synthetic opioid and the urgent need for targeted prevention and public health responses.

Fentanyl Pills: A Growing Threat

The study, led by researchers from the NIDA-funded National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS), found that the number of individual pills containing fentanyl seized by law enforcement increased by a staggering 2,300 times between 2017 and 2023. In 2023, pills represented nearly half of all illicit fentanyl seizures, compared to just 10% in 2017.

NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., emphasized the danger posed by these illicit pills, stating, “Illicit pills are made to look identical to real prescription pills, but can actually contain fentanyl. It is urgently important that people know that any pills given to someone by a friend, purchased on social media, or received from any source other than a pharmacy could be potentially deadly – even after a single ingestion.”

Regional Shifts and the Need for Targeted Responses

The analysis also revealed significant regional shifts in fentanyl seizures, with the Western U.S. now accounting for the majority of law enforcement seizures and the highest proportion of fentanyl pill seizures compared to overall fentanyl seizures. These findings underscore the importance of ongoing monitoring of regional trends to inform targeted prevention and public health responses.

Joseph J. Palamar, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study, emphasized the need for public health efforts to prevent these pills from reaching young people and to help prevent overdoses among those unknowingly consuming fentanyl-containing pills.

As the availability of illicit fentanyl continues to skyrocket in the U.S., the findings of this study serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need for swift and targeted public health responses to combat the growing threat posed by fentanyl, particularly in pill form. By leveraging data from law enforcement seizures, researchers and policymakers can develop more effective strategies to prevent the spread of this highly potent and deadly synthetic opioid.

 J Palamar, et al. National and Regional Trends in Fentanyl Seizures in the United States, 2017-2023International Journal of Drug PolicyDOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2024.104417 (2024).

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