With so much chaos in world politics – scandal piled on scandal piled on an accidental ballistic missile warning – it’s all too easy to overlook the fact that 2016 made history as the nation’s deadliest year ever for drug overdose deaths in the United States.
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a 20 percent rise in drug related fatalities contributed to a second year of declining life expectancy.
The U.S. has not had two years of shrinking life expectancies since an extreme epidemic of the flu hit the country in 1962 and 1963.
“We have data for almost half of 2017 at this point. It’s still quite provisional, but it suggests that we’re in for another increase” in drug-related deaths, Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the National Center for Health statistics, told CNN. “If we’re not careful, we could end up with declining life expectancy for three years in a row, which we haven’t seen since the Spanish flu, 100 years ago.”
The CDC reports a staggering 63,600 deaths nationwide from drug overdoses, with the majority of those, some 42,000, losing their lives from opioids.
The national average for drug deaths is 19.8 people per 100,000. In California, the average was lower – 11.2 per 100,000 – but drugs still claimed 5,000 lives in the state.
What States Have Been Hit the Hardest by the Opioid Epidemic?
The five states hit worse by the opioid epidemic, according to CDC data, are:
- West Virginia (52 per 100,000)
- Ohio (39.1 per 100,000)
- New Hampshire (39 per 100,000)
- Pennsylvania (37.9 per 100,000)
- Kentucky (33.5 per 100,000)
Overdose Fatalities Compared to Other Causes of Death
To paint an even starker picture of how bad the situation has gotten, drug overdose fatalities in 2016 alone have eclipsed each of the following causes of death in their peak years:
- AIDS/HIV (peak year 1995)
- Gun deaths (peak year 1993)
- Car crashes (peak year 1972)
- Entirety of the Vietnam War
- Opioid deaths last year even eclipsed the number of Americans that died from breast cancer by more than 1,000
When examining the peak years for these causes of death, each one had a nationwide awareness campaign to inform the public about the problem. Awareness is the first step of eliminating any national problem. When proper solutions were formulated, they followed the awareness campaigns and many times they were successful.
Seat belt laws and national speed limit changes helped reduce the number of auto fatalities after 1972.
New, multi-drug therapies helped with the decrease of AIDS fatalities after 1995.
Technological advances in medicine and healthcare have impacted the declining number of people who die from many types of disease, like cancer.
Unfortunately with the opioid epidemic, we are still in the awareness stage and it has only recently begun to spread throughout the country. We have a long way to go to find a solution.
What is Being Done Today?
As the data for 2017 is being compiled, preliminary estimates aren’t encouraging despite President Trump declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency last October. Shortly after the declaration, the president appointed Senior White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway to head the administration efforts at solving the opioid epidemic.
Conway’s appointment has come under fire from critics because of her lack of experience with addiction, mental health or healthcare policy and only added more fuel to the controversy that there were no funds allocated by the executive branch to tackle the crisis of opioid addiction and overdoses.
Some are even arguing that the recent tax legislation passed by Congress is going to make the situation even more dire.
The bill, which eliminated the individual mandate created by the Affordable Care Act, is estimated to send insurance premiums soaring, knocking some 13 million people off of their insurance in the next 10 years. This will result in fewer people getting the help and treatment they need, according to critics like former Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.
“It’s going to be the vote that sets this country back further than anything else in our ability to tackle this crisis. Period. There’s going to be no more significant vote on opioids,” Kennedy said in an interview with CNN News.
Keeping the drumbeat of awareness on the epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths is more important than ever. Considering options to solve the issue, like Portugal’s successful move in decriminalizing drug use, can open up a discussion and debate.
The failed war on drugs provides the country with an opportunity to find another way to combat this issue, an approach that, perhaps, is uniquely American, compassionate, and effective.