Since 1993, American life expectancy, or how long a child born today can expect to live in the absence of advances in medicine and health, has consistently risen. This week, however, that changed when the average life expectancy dropped for the first time. It’s a minor drop of only .1 year, but it speaks to the depth of the opioid crisis and what needs to be done to stop it.
In theory you’d think it was just a bad year. as the major causes of death were unchanged. Heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide still account for nearly three quarters of all deaths in the United States. The difference is that, aside from a drop in cancer and pneumonia plateauing, all of these rose slightly. Yet what’s attention-getting is the 13 percent rise in accidental poisoning, with 97 percent of that being opioid overdoses. A CDC expert noted that they’re seeing a rise in preventable causes of death, with “preventable” being the key word.
The fundamental problem with America’s opioid crisis is that it hits exactly where law enforcement and social mores are trained to look away. Drug abuse prevention efforts have focused on illegal drugs, but the most dangerous drug in America, at the moment, is prescription opioids. At least half of all overdoses involve prescription opioids and overdose deaths from these drugs has quadrupled since the turn of the century. It’s a legal drug, available from most pharmacies, and in fact many people genuinely need these drugs to start on the road to recovery from injury or engage in a pain management program. The “dealer” could be a grandma getting her pills filched by her children, a pharmacist who puts a prescription through without realizing it’s fake, or somebody who needs the drugs selling them instead to make rent.
1993, the last year life expectancy decreased, offers both insight into the problem and a sign of hope. 1993’s decrease was due to, among other things, a terrible flu outbreak and the height of the AIDS crisis. By 1994, AIDS would become the leading cause of death in America for 25-44 year olds. But an enormous public health campaign helped reduce the spread of the virus and raised billions to push through medical breakthroughs in treating the disease.
The question is whether we can marshal such an effort now. Trump’s main plan for ending the opioid crisis is largely focused on foreign policy. Mike Pence’s attempts to deal with the crisis have been heavily criticized, as Scott County, Indiana, saw the worst HIV outbreak in years due in part to Pence’s slow acceptance that needle exchange programs were necessary to end heroin use. But at the same time, the problem is stark enough that it can break through even the thickest political bubble, and that will have to happen to help Americans in need.