Major Causes of Avoidable Deaths

V. Key Health Policy Issues >> A. Burden of Illness >> Avoidable Mortality >> Major Causes of Avoidable Deaths (last update 11.29.17)


This summarizes the 10 leading causes of avoidable (preventable) deaths in the U.S. Ranking is approximate since the exact number depends on sources and methods. In some cases total deaths are reported annually in U.S. vital statistics reports, but in most cases, figures are compiled from a variety of sources or estimated with models that calculate the attributable risk related to a given cause.

1. Tobacco

  • According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., accounting for 480,317 average annual deaths during 2005-2009 (including 41,284 from second-hand smoke).
  • However, using a different model, McGinnis estimates only 350,000 deaths from tobacco in 2010 (Table 3-1).

2. Medical Errors

  • See here for various estimates of deaths due to medical errors, which range from 251,454 to 440,000.
  • However, McGinnis estimates only 70,000 deaths from medical errors in 2010 (Table 3-1).

3. Diet/Inactivity

  • McGinnis estimates 400,000 deaths from diet/inactivity in 2010 (Table 3-1).


  • In 1991, estimated obesity-attributable deaths in the U.S. were roughly 280,000 based on the entire population and 325,000 when calculated using only non-smokers or never-smokers. However, this study failed to properly control for confounding risks.
  • An improved and updated study showed that there were only 111,909 excess deaths in 2000 due to obesity (BMI 30 and above).
  • Richard Peto estimates (7.13.16) that 1 in 5 premature deaths in the U.S. is attributable to obesity. “On average, overweight people lose about one year of life expectancy, and moderately obese people lose about three years of life expectancy.” In North America, the hazard ratio for obesity grade 1 (BMI=30<35) was 1.39; for obesity grade 2 (BMI=35-<40) was 1.93; for obesity grade 3 (BMI=40-60) was 2.58. 

4. Alcohol

  • According to CDC, excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year in the United States from 2006 – 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.
  • However, using a different model, McGinnis estimates only 70,000 deaths from alcohol in 2010 (Table 3-1). In 2015, a total of 33,171 persons died of alcohol-induced causes in the United States. This category includes deaths from dependent and non-dependent use of alcohol, as well as deaths from accidental poisoning by alcohol. It excludes unintentional injuries, homicides, and other causes indirectly related to alcohol use, as well as deaths due to fetal alcohol syndrome. The 70,000 and 88,000 figures include the latter.

5. Microbial Agents

  • In 2010 there were 80,000 deaths due to infectious and parasitic diseases (Table 3-1); this figure excludes deaths from AIDS (which are instead counted in sexual behavior) and selected excess pneumonia and septicemia deaths among patients with cancer, heart disease, lung disease, or liver disease, that really are attributable to smoking, poor diet, or alcohol consumption.
  • Microbial agent deaths declined from 90,000 in 1990 to 75,000 in 2000 (Table 2).

6. Drug Overdoses

  • In 2015, a total of 55,403 persons died of drug-induced causes in the United States (Tables 5, 6, 8, and I–1). This category includes deaths from poisoning and medical conditions caused by use of legal or illegal drugs, as well as deaths from poisoning due to medically prescribed and other drugs. It excludes unintentional injuries, homicides, and other causes indirectly related to drug use, as well as newborn deaths due to the mother’s drug use.
  • According to CDC, during 2015, drug overdoses accounted for 52,404 U.S. deaths, including 33,091 (63.1%) that involved an opioid. Drug overdose deaths were identified using ICD-10, based on the ICD-10 underlying cause-of-death codes X40–44 (unintentional), X60–64 (suicide), X85 (homicide), or Y10–Y14 (undetermined intent).

7. Toxic Agents

  • In 2010 there were 60,000 deaths from toxic agents including toxins, particulates and radon (Table 3-1).
  • Coal alone kills about 15,000 Americans a year.
  • Deaths from toxic agents declined from 60,000 in 1990 to 55,000 in 2000 despite population growth (Table 2).

8. Motor Vehicle Accidents

  • According to NHTSA, there were 37,461 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents in 2016. Most are from cars, but the figures include motorcycle deaths and deaths to pedestrians and cyclists from all forms of motor vehicles.

9. Firearms

  • In 2015, 36,252 persons died from injury by firearms.
  • The figures include 22,018 due to suicide, and 12,979 due to homicide (Table 6).

10. Sexual Behavior

  • In 2010 there were 15,000 deaths from sexual behavior, mostly AIDS (Table 3-1).
  • This figure declined from a level of 30,000 in 1990 to 20,000 in 2000 despite population growth mostly due to a reduction in AIDS-related mortality (Table 2).