Opioid epidemic reaches crisis proportions

Mike Sarafa

Mike Sarafa

Two-thirds of all people that ever hit the age of 65 years old in the history of the world are alive today. In the United States alone, approximately 10,000 per day turn 65.

Those are staggering demographic statistics that will impact the U.S. economy and public policy in areas like health care, employment and more. But those demographics also speak head on to another point. People are living longer than ever due to advances in science, medicine and technology.

That has been the case until now. For the first time in nearly 50 years, life expectancy in the United States decreased instead of increased. Why? The opioid crisis. So many people have died from opioid related use that it has pushed down life expectancy rates in the U. S in a material way. More than 140 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consider the following statistics from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The information is dated so you can assume everything is actually worse today.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015.

From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales and substance use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain relievers increased in parallel. The overdose death rate in 2008 was nearly four times the 1999 rate; sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999; and the substance use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate.

In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.

Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers.

94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were far more expensive and harder to obtain.

This past October, President Trump declared a public health emergency to deal with the opioid epidemic, freeing up significant resources for treatment. “We are currently dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history,” Trump said, adding, “It’s just been so long in the making. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.” 

Still, critics have said it’s not enough. There is not any earmarked funds but rather the ability to use existing resources within the various departments and agencies. A more serious approach would have been to declare a “national emergency” as opposed to “public health emergency” which carries with it more immediate tools including funding.

I agree with critiques of the current approach. This crisis touches on many areas from mental health to out of control doctors and pharmacists. A holistic approach is needed and one that is truly grounded in public health concerns as opposed to criminal justice remedies.

The last war on drugs had minimal positive consequences. Let’s make sure we get it right this time and address the demand side of the equation. 


Michael Sarafa is Co-publisher of the Chaldean News.