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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Is NC 'Second In The Nation' In Overdose Deaths?

NC Legislature

North Carolina, like many states, has been grappling with how to reduce the number of drug overdose deaths, especially as opioid addiction has become more widespread. North Carolina lawmakers have introduced a pair of bills that would impose tougher penalties on people who illegally give a controlled substance to someone who died as a result of taking it.

The bill’s co-sponsor Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville promoted the bill last week in a committee meeting, saying “North Carolina last year was second in the nation in overdose deaths.”

Paul Specht from the Raleigh News and Observer joins Morning Edition co-host Lisa Worf to sort out fact from fiction.

Worf: OK. So first off, how many drug overdoses does North Carolina have on a yearly basis?

Specht: Well, the information we looked at is from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their most recent data shows that North Carolina has about 2,200 overdose deaths over the last 12 month period.

Worf: And to be clear that's deaths from all drugs.

Specht: Correct.

Worf: So to Senator Brown's remarks does that amount to the second highest in the country?

Specht: No, it's not. According to 2017 stats, which are the most recent available through the CDC, North Carolina had the 19th highest drug overdose death rate. And then we had the 10th highest total number of overdose deaths which the total number is about on par for our population compared with the rest of the country. But our rate is significantly different from what Senator Brown said. He said we have the second most drug overdose deaths. Our rate is 19th in the country which is a big difference if you ask me.

Worf: So where did Senator Brown get that number from?

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Specht: Well, here's where we in the media come in. Last summer, WFAE and the News and Observer and a few other media outlets reported the CDC predicted totals for the 2017 data. That's something the CDC does regularly. They will come out with a press release or an announcement about their prediction for the total number of overdose deaths.

And at the time we, North Carolina, were predicted to have the second highest increase in the country and overdose deaths. And so that's what the News & Observer put in our headline. That's what WFAE put in its headline and that's what Senator Brown cited when we asked him about it.

He said that he misspoke he meant to say that we have the second highest increase in the country and overdose deaths.

Worf: I was waiting for that one with WFAE coming into the picture and I, in fact, remember working on that report. So on a quick read, I can see where he went with that. If this was the preliminary number. What was the final for 2017?

Specht: Later last year, they came out with total 2017 numbers. And we were found to have the fourth highest increase in drug overdose deaths between calendar year 2016 and 2017, which is close to what the prediction was from the CDC but not exactly right.

You know, one can understand why Brown got the number wrong. Between you and me, I didn't know that the CDC put out predictive numbers every year. I figured they would just put out reports when they had all the numbers. So I can understand how he went wrong.

[Related Content: Fact Check: NC Doesn't Have The Second-Most Drug Overdose Deaths]

Worf: When you emailed me this week about it. I thought, yeah that's worth a final report.

Specht: And the prediction only came out in August 2018 and so if you're Harry Brown or a member of his staff you probably dig that up and think to yourself, 'oh well this is probably the most recent estimate. It's not even a year old yet.'

Lo and behold, not only is it not the most recent estimate it is two reports back at this point. Since that August report that came out that predicted we would be the second highest, we had the total number come out. That said we had the fourth highest increase in drug overdose deaths and even since then the CDC has put out new information that looked at stats between August 2017 and August 2018. So they moved up the calendar and are looking at a new 12 month period. And according to that new set, we're not even in the top 10 even in terms of the largest increase or decrease in drug overdose deaths.

Worf: And so Paul what was your final rating on Brown's statement?

Specht: We've talked a lot about all these stats from the CDC but when we rate somebody on the truth-o-meter we look at their original statement. Brown's original statement. So that North Carolina last year quote "was second in the nation in overdose deaths." That's not true by rate or by total number of deaths.

He said he misspoke but even what he meant to say that North Carolina had the second largest increase in total drug deaths is based on an outdated stat at this point. So we rated this claim false. 

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.