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Overdose Deaths Nearly Double Among African-Americans In Tennessee

Overdose deaths among African-Americans in Tennessee have roughly doubled since 2012. Fatalities from opioids are still growing among whites in the state, but deaths among blacks are surging twice as fast.

Figures from the state's health department show blacks accounted for just 15 percent of all overdose deaths in the most recent year data is available. But that masks that the number of blacks dying from opioids is rising fast. In 2012, black deaths were just eight percent of overdose fatalities in Tennessee.

Lloyda Williamson chairs the psychiatry department at Meharry Medical College, which specializes in minority communities. She's only recently secured her license to prescribe medication-assisted treatment to opioid abusers. She's concerned that opioid addiction might have been disregarded as a white problem.

"Part of the difficulty is the lack of knowledge of people understanding how quickly one can become addicted and how quickly one can move from appropriate prescriptions to inappropriate use and over use and abuse," she says.

There's no clear-cut explanation for why opioids are moving more into black communities, but Williamson says it's obvious why they started among whites.

"When you look at the history of how this crisis has gone, what it really indicates is that for a number of years white individuals were more frequently prescribed opiate painkillers when you compared that to black or African-American patients," she says. "What it appears has happened is African-Americans are now having more access to those pain medications."

However, new opioid abusers are getting in at a time when the drug is even more dangerous, with many counterfeit pills laced with high-powered fentanyl. In Boston, experts on the street fear African-Americans may be even more likely to end up with tainted drugs.

According to figures kept by the Centers for Disease Control, Tennessee is among five states and Washington, D.C. where overdose deaths for African Americans doubled in just a two year period.

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