Who is dying in Connecticut’s opioid overdose crisis?

Questions have been raised about whether the attention paid to the rise in opioid deaths is related to its disproportionate impact on whites. In Connecticut, that racial disparity is real and growing.

In Connecticut, death by drug overdose is more common among white people than among other racial and ethnic groups, and that racial disparity is growing.

That trend holds for opioid overdose deaths too.

We examined state data on 1,912 opioid-related overdose deaths from January 2012 through September 2015 to see which groups were most affected.

We first looked at all deaths ruled "drug-induced" regardless of the category of drug, for 2013, the most recent year for which data was available.

There were 572 deaths ruled drug-induced, and 355 deaths (62 percent) attributed to accidental overdose of any opioid -- that includes illegal drugs, such as heroin, as well as prescription drugs, such as Oxycodone.

The rate of drug deaths per 10,000 residents was higher for whites (1.77) than other racial and ethnic groups. (For our purposes, "white" and "black" include those identified in the data as being white alone or black alone, not Hispanic. Anyone described as Hispanic, regardless of race, was categorized as Hispanic).

In the three full years for which we have complete data on overdose deaths, we see a widening gap between white death rates and the death rates for other racial and ethnic groups.

"Being white or affluent doesn't protect you. In fact, in some cases it might be a risk factor," said Dr. Daniel Tobin, assistant professor of medicine at Yale University. "Affluent communities tend to have better access to prescription pain medications."

In 2012, black, Hispanic and white residents were affected by accidental opioid overdoses at a similar rate (between about 1 and 1.1 deaths per 10,000 residents).

The death rate has increased not only for whites but for Hispanics as well.

The death rate for blacks, which was higher than for other races in 2012, has decreased, widening the racial gap.

Over the entire period from January 2012 through September 2015, the death rate per 10,000 residents was 5.3 -- 6.2 among whites; 4.1, among black; 4 amongHispanic; and 1.1 among all other groups.

Broad Age Range

More than half (56 percent) of opioid overdose victims were age 40 or older, and the deaths were fairly evenly distributed among a wide range of age groups from 20 to 60 years old.

The older people get, the more often they visit doctors and accumulate supply. Connecticut ranks first in visits for preventive health care.

No matter how old you are, you're at risk, said Tobin.

"Yes, it seems someone might be highest risk in that age group, but if you look up at those in their 30s, the difference is not terribly different or statistically significant," he said.

However, while the deaths were relatively evenly distributed among the age groups, black victims were older than white or Hispanic victims.

The median black victim's age was 48, compared with 41 for whites, 43 for Hispanics and 30 for the relatively small "other" group.

Overdoses are affecting people across all socioeconomic categories.

In urban areas, there might be more overdoses from heroin alone, whereas in affluent communities, there might be more prescription drug users that have switched to heroin.

"But in terms of frequency of use and risk of overdose, it's across all swaths of demographics in the state," said Tobin.

According to an analysis of data compiled by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and cleaned by the Connecticut Data Collaborative, heroin has been most often found in the bloodstream of those who overdosed between the ages of 21 and 45 since 2012.

Deaths in that 21 to 45 age group outnumbered deaths in other age groups for drug types other than hydrocodone, oxymorphone, and oxycodone. For those drugs, overdose victims between the ages of 46 and 60 outnumbered those in all other age groups.

White overdose victims vastly outnumbered those of races, particularly for heroin. However, cocaine and fentanyl had less pronounced gaps between white victims and black and Hispanic victims.

Next: Where did the affected live?