Addiction to prescription painkillers is believed to be the reason for death rates that rival the AIDS epidemic of more than 20 years ago. Fatal overdoses have risen in almost every county in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the trend is showing no signs of slowing.
Even as fatalities from other medical illnesses like heart disease, HIV and cancer, have decreased, an estimated 125 Americans die each day from drug overdoses. Dartmouth economist, Jonathan Skinner, told The New York Times that charts of these drug deaths appear similar to graphs of an unknown contagion. “It is like an infection model,” he said, “diffusing out and catching more and more people.
One of the most effective tools that sociologists have as it concerns quality of life are mortality rates. The statistics, in this case, paint a stark picture of a country grappling with addiction.
What are Some of the U.S. Addiction Epidemic Mortality Statistics?
- Nationally, opioids were involved in 61 percent of fatal overdoses in 2014
- Drug overdoses have traditionally been an urban issue, but drug deaths in rural areas are beginning to surpass larger metropolitan areas
- Those with less education are more likely to suffer from fatal drug overdoses
- Women have been hit particularly hard, with opioid deaths increasing fivefold between 1999 and 2010
- Young white adults, ages 25 to 34, are the first generation since the 1960s to have higher rates of death in early adulthood than the generation before them
- Mortality rates due to fatal overdose are higher among whites in all age groups than both African American and Hispanic populations
Who is to Blame for the Current Drug Epidemic?
Many experts claim that much of the fault is in the lap of the pharmaceutical industry. “In the mid-1990s, there was a social movement that said it was unacceptable for patients to have chronic pain,” Dr. Carl Sullivan, director of addiction services at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, told the New York Times, “and the pharmaceutical industry pushed the notion that opioids were safe.”
Healthcare providers, according to the CDC, handed out 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012 alone, enough for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills. Trying to stem growing abuse of these medications, lawmakers passed legislation several years ago making it more difficult for patients to get opioids.
The results have been disastrous. Often those with opioid addictions that lose access to these painkillers, either legally or illegally, turn to heroin, which has the same chemical makeup and is readily available in most parts of the country.
Another unsettling aspect of this lethal situation is availability of treatment for opioid addiction. Patients in rehab can see improvement within months and go on to live productive lives. A majority of states, however, have increased law enforcement and prison budgets as a means of addressing this issue. Jails are now filled with people suffering from drug and alcohol dependency who receive little to no treatment and are likely to reoffend after being released.
Public awareness surrounding this issue is at an all time high. Even campaigning politicians are sharing stories of addiction within their own families. In the meantime, as talking heads discuss what’s to be done, a generation of Americans are unnecessarily losing their lives because of a treatable illness.