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Despite Prince's death, fentanyl still a rarity among opioids

US artist singer and songwriter Prince performs on stage during his concert in Antwerp Sportpaleis, on November 8, 2010.  AFP PHOTO /BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM (Photo credit should read DIRK WAEM/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Prince was found dead at his compound in Minneapolis on April 12, 2016.

The high-profile overdose death of Prince has put the opioid fentanyl in the spotlight, but while it accounts for a number of deaths in Southern California it makes up a very small portion of the overall opioid market.

Nationally, doctors wrote 6.5 million Fentanyl prescriptions last year, compared with nearly 100 million prescriptions for the more common opioids Vicodin and Norco, according to IMS Health, which tracks drug sales.

Fentanyl is typically used to treat pain during late-stage cancer and other end-of-life situations. It is extremely potent, up to 100 times stronger than morphine.

IMS Health does not have a breakdown of prescription sales by state.  In California, the number of overdose deaths from fentanyl track about the same as the drug's share of sales.

In 2014, fentanyl was responsible for less than 10 percent of the roughly 2,000 opioid-related deaths in California, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Nationally, there were more than 28,000 opioid-related deaths that year.

Orange County Fentanyl-Related Deaths

  • 2015 – 20 (incomplete)
  • 2014 – 14
  • 2013 – 20
  • 2012 – 12
  • 2011 – 13
  • 2010 – 15

Source: O.C. Coroner’s Office

Los Angeles County Fentanyl-Related Deaths

  • 2015 – pending
  • 2014 – 62
  • 2013 – 44
  • 2012 – 41
  • 2011 – 42

Source: L.A. County Department of Public Health analysis of L.A. County Coroner Data

About one-third of California’s 2014 fentanyl deaths – 62 - were in L.A. County, according to Los Angeles County Department of Public Health data. That’s up from the previous two years.

L.A. County has created a coalition of public and private health providers and law enforcement to address opioid abuse, says Gary Tsai, who oversees the county’s substance abuse prevention efforts. 

The number of fentanyl deaths on the east coast are much higher than in California, and public health experts are bracing for a surge in the west. Fourteen people have died in the Sacramento area this year of fentanyl-related overdoses.

"Prescription drugs are more difficult to obtain since we are now paying more attention," Tsai says. "People seek out alternatives, and along with heroin, fentanyl is an opioid alternative."

Often, he says, people don’t know the drugs they are buying include fentanyl.

Orange County is also seeing a growing number of fentanyl deaths, according to the county coroner's office. In 2014, there were 14 deaths in the county, and last year there were 20.

These kinds of deaths are usually traced to illegally-made fentanyl that is added to other drugs, says Dr. Padma Gulur, a UC Irvine pain specialist who is heading a new task force created by the Orange County Health Care Agency to combat opioid abuse. 

While the number of fentanyl-related deaths in the county is still relatively small, "it is alarming to see that it's made its way into our community," she says.