The Opioid Crisis
In America, more than 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose. An estimated 11.4 million people misused opioids in 2017, including 11.1 million people misusing prescription drugs and 886,000 people using heroin. Although this crisis has only recently grabbed the attention of policymakers, it has been building for years.
Since the 1990s, opioid deaths in America have quadrupled and opioid abuse has emerged as perhaps the country ’s most serious public health crisis. From 2014 to 2018, U.S. life expectancy decreased every year, which the CDC has partially attributed to the prevalence of opioid abuse. The exponential increase in opioid abuse has been driven by a lethal brew of overprescribed pills, a new generation of lethal and illicit drugs, and economic and family breakdown in communities across the country.
Following the Civil War, the Union Army alone issued nearly 10 million opium pills and 2.84 million ounces of opium powder to wounded soldiers—part of a trend where doctors increasingly viewed opiates as a panacea for pain. By the 1870s, the hypodermic needle became more commonly used, allowing opium-based morphine to quickly flood the bloodstream to produce powerful effects. Opium derivatives were being prescribed to middle- and upper-class women, with doctors turning to morphine for women’s health services like menstrual cramps and morning sickness. Drugs soon flooded immigrant and black communities with more limited educational, housing, and social opportunities to guard against addiction.
But this isn’t the first time America has been gripped by addiction—medical journals were reporting the dangers of opium addiction more than a century ago. F. E. Oliver, a prolific Boston researcher and medical doctor, wrote in 1872: “It is not too soon to look about us and see how far [opium] has intruded upon our soil, that we may be the better prepared to meet, if need be, so insidious a foe.”
Drug crises pile on each other, and the public health burden gets heavier each time. Though recent efforts by legislators, doctors, and patients have striven to curb this epidemic, opioid-involved deaths still outpace deaths from HIV/AIDS, firearms, and car crashes. The New Center has several ideas for how America can better prepare to meet so insidious a foe:
- Removing barriers to medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
- Delivering comprehensive care through the hub and spoke model
- Creating a support system through drug courts
- Better educating medical students on chronic pain
- Streamlining the use of prescription drug monitoring programs
- Allowing federal grants to provide flexible funding