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MMWR Surveill Summ. 2017 Oct 20;66(19):1-12. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.ss6619a1.

Illicit Drug Use, Illicit Drug Use Disorders, and Drug Overdose Deaths in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Areas - United States.

Author information

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC.
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Erratum in



Drug overdoses are a leading cause of injury death in the United States, resulting in approximately 52,000 deaths in 2015. Understanding differences in illicit drug use, illicit drug use disorders, and overall drug overdose deaths in metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas is important for informing public health programs, interventions, and policies.


Illicit drug use and drug use disorders during 2003-2014, and drug overdose deaths during 1999-2015.


The National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) collects information through face-to-face household interviews about the use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco among the U.S. noninstitutionalized civilian population aged ≥12 years. Respondents include residents of households and noninstitutional group quarters (e.g., shelters, rooming houses, dormitories, migratory workers' camps, and halfway houses) and civilians living on military bases. NSDUH variables include sex, age, race/ethnicity, residence (metropolitan/nonmetropolitan), annual household income, self-reported drug use, and drug use disorders. National Vital Statistics System Mortality (NVSS-M) data for U.S. residents include information from death certificates filed in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Cases were selected with an underlying cause of death based on the ICD-10 codes for drug overdoses (X40-X44, X60-X64, X85, and Y10-Y14). NVSS-M variables include decedent characteristics (sex, age, and race/ethnicity) and information on intent (unintentional, suicide, homicide, or undetermined), location of death (medical facility, in a home, or other [including nursing homes, hospices, unknown, and other locations]) and county of residence (metropolitan/nonmetropolitan). Metropolitan/nonmetropolitan status is assigned independently in each data system. NSDUH uses a three-category system: Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA) of ≥1 million persons; CBSA of <1 million persons; and not a CBSA, which for simplicity were labeled large metropolitan, small metropolitan, and nonmetropolitan. Deaths from NVSS-M are categorized by the county of residence of the decedent using CDC's National Center for Health Statistics 2013 Urban-Rural Classification Scheme, collapsed into two categories (metropolitan and nonmetropolitan).


Although both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas experienced significant increases from 2003-2005 to 2012-2014 in self-reported past-month use of illicit drugs, the prevalence was highest for the large metropolitan areas compared with small metropolitan or nonmetropolitan areas throughout the study period. Notably, past-month use of illicit drugs declined over the study period for the youngest respondents (aged 12-17 years). The prevalence of past-year illicit drug use disorders among persons using illicit drugs in the past year varied by metropolitan/nonmetropolitan status and changed over time. Across both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, the prevalence of past-year illicit drug use disorders declined during 2003-2014. In 2015, approximately six times as many drug overdose deaths occurred in metropolitan areas than occurred in nonmetropolitan areas (metropolitan: 45,059; nonmetropolitan: 7,345). Drug overdose death rates (per 100,000 population) for metropolitan areas were higher than in nonmetropolitan areas in 1999 (6.4 versus 4.0), however, the rates converged in 2004, and by 2015, the nonmetropolitan rate (17.0) was slightly higher than the metropolitan rate (16.2).


Drug use and subsequent overdoses continue to be a critical and complicated public health challenge across metropolitan/nonmetropolitan areas. The decline in illicit drug use by youth and the lower prevalence of illicit drug use disorders in rural areas during 2012-2014 are encouraging signs. However, the increasing rate of drug overdose deaths in rural areas, which surpassed rates in urban areas, is cause for concern.


Understanding the differences between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas in drug use, drug use disorders, and drug overdose deaths can help public health professionals to identify, monitor, and prioritize responses. Consideration of where persons live and where they die from overdose could enhance specific overdose prevention interventions, such as training on naloxone administration or rescue breathing. Educating prescribers on CDC's guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain (Dowell D, Haegerich TM, Chou R. CDC guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain-United States, 2016. MMWR Recomm Rep 2016;66[No. RR-1]) and facilitating better access to medication-assisted treatment with methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone could benefit communities with high opioid use disorder rates.

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