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1,451 Tennesseans Die of Drug Overdoses in 2015

Last year, 1,451 people died of drug overdoses in Tennessee -- the highest annual number of overdose deaths in state history.

The new data, released Tuesday from theTennessee Department of Health, brings the five-year total of overdose deaths, statewide, to 6,036 -- the same, the state said, as if every person on 40 mid-size jet airplanes died.

Almost 72 percent of those deaths, the state said, involved opioid drugs. About 30 percent combined opioid and benzodiazepine drugs, like Xanax.

Deaths caused by fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that rose in availability in East Tennessee over the past year, more than doubled: 174 deaths in 2015, up from 69 in 2014, the state said. Heroin-associated deaths statewide increased to 205 in 2015, from 147 in 2015.

Tennessee's drug overdose death rate is now up from 19 of every 100,000 people, to 22 of every 100,000. By comparison, motor vehicle accidents killed 14 of every 100,000 Tennesseans -- 970 total -- last year.

In Knox County, the state confirmed 153 residents died of drug overdoses in 2015; the Knox metropolitan area lagged only a little behind Nashville (157) and Memphis (188) in overdose deaths.

East Tennessee counties also were hard-hit, with 33 deaths confirmed in Blount County; 28 in Sevier; 26 in Anderson; 21 each in Campbell and Roane; 17 in Hamblen; and 12 each in Claiborne and Monroe. A number of other counties had fewer than a dozen, but the state withheld that data to protect the identities of the deceased.

Altogether, 62 Tennessee counties had five or more overdose deaths. Only Haywood, Lake, Lauderdale, Perry, Pickett, Trousdale and Van Buren -- none of those in East Tennessee -- reported no overdose deaths.

The "vast majority" of drug overdose deaths in Tennessee last year were preventable, said John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health.

"This is a disease every one of us is vulnerable to -- not a moral failing," Dreyzehner said. "Not one of these victims deserved this, and the tragedy of lives lost to overdoses becomes even more painful knowing these deaths can be prevented and are the horrible tip of the iceberg.

"We've made progress in reducing the amount of powerful narcotics legally dispensed and in making the overdose antidote naloxone more readily available, but there are still many people battling substance use disorders without seeking professional help, and many criminals willing to sell extremely dangerous pills, counterfeit pills, and gray and illegal substances."

Earlier this year, the state agreed to let pharmacies dispense naloxone without a prescription. The drug can reverse the effects of opioid overdose if given quickly, and Dreyzehner encouraged citizens -- especially those whose loved ones have addiction issues -- to have it on hand and learn to use it. The state passed legislation that protects those administering naloxone to save a life from liability.

The state also has a hot line -- 1-800-889-9789 -- for those seeking treatment for addiction. But for those who don't have insurance, waits for inpatient services are often long, causing various agencies to come up with alternative programs to try to get at least some form of treatment to those who need it.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director Mark Gwyn said those whose addiction compels them to buy drugs on the street put themselves in even more danger, as they are buying pills from unknown sources.

"Some of those pills are counterfeit, full of dangerous substances like fentanyl, which has certainly contributed to the recent increase in overdose deaths in Tennessee," Gwyn said. "It can't be said strongly enough: Turning to the streets to find your next fix isn't the answer, and it might very well cost you your life."

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