The Tennessee Opioid Epidemic by the Numbers

By Ryan Hanson

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States is in “the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic.”  More people died from drug1 overdoses in 2015 than in any other year on record.2 Since 1999, the death rate from overdoses involving prescription opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone have more than quadrupled.  Between 2000 and 2015, more than half a million people died from drug overdoses, and 91 people die in the United States daily from opioid abuse.3

What do the data say about Tennessee?  In short, available data tend to fall in line with national trends which show that the opioid epidemic is primarily affecting rural, white males between the ages of 45 and 55. The following data are taken from Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) maintained by the CDC.4

Tennessee ranked 9th in the nation in drug-related deaths per 100,000 population. Table 1 shows the death rate by county in Tennessee between 2010 and 2015. The highest rates during the six-year period were found in the rural counties of Roane, Hamblen, Hardin, and Campbell. Map 1 presents a geographic distribution of the rates for 2015. Charts 1 and 2 show the rise in the drug-induced death rate between 1999 and 2015. Tables 2 and 3 show that males accounted for the majority of deaths for every year between 2010 and 2015, both in terms of absolute numbers and deaths per 100,000.  Table 4 and Chart 3 show that people between 45 and 54 years of age increasingly were the most affected during the same period.  Finally, Table 5 shows that whites have been most affected in terms of race.

These numbers may just be the tip of the iceberg, however.  A recent report by CNN pointed out that due to a lack of national standardized death certificates and autopsies, the CDC’s numbers may be underestimating the true impact of the epidemic. The effects of infectious diseases such as pneumonia can be compounded by opioid abuse, and with a lack of national standards, frequently a profound disease like pneumonia will be the only thing noted on a death certificate.5

The data show that opioid abuse is a problem that has greatly affected both Tennessee and the nation in recent years and has had a particularly significant impact on rural, white males between the ages of 45 and 54.  However, this is an epidemic that can and has affected all American communities, and there may be under-reporting of its true impact.  

Source: CDC, WONDER, 2017.

Source: CDC, WONDER, 2017.

Source: CDC, WONDER, 2017.


1 Approximately one-fifth of drug overdose deaths lack information on the specific drugs involved. Some of these deaths might involve opioids.   Opioids include drugs such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, heroin, methadone, fentanyl, and tramadol. Deaths might involve more than one drug; thus, categories are not exclusive. See R. A. Rudd, N. Aleshire, J. E. Zibbell, and Gladden R. Matthew, “Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths—United States, 2000–2014,” American Journal of Transplantation, 16: 1323–1327, 2016. Accessible at:

  2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated June 2016, “The Opioid Epidemic: By the Numbers,”

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated December 16, 2016, “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States Continue to Increase in 2015,”

4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER),”

5 “Opioid-related Deaths May be Underestimated, CDC Report Says -”  (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2017, from