Fight to fix opioid crisis must continue

Published 12:56 pm Friday, February 7, 2020

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Small steps in the right direction on the nation’s opioid crisis have helped life expectancy improve slightly for the first time in nearly three decades.

But the improvement is slight — just a tenth of a year better from 78.6 to 78.7 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the U.S. remains far behind the rest of the developed world, where life expectancy often exceeds 80 years.

Drug overdose deaths have been driven to historic highs by decades of over-production and over-marketing of highly addictive and dangerous opioid pain relievers. But there were slightly fewer overdose deaths — 46,802 — in 2018 than in 2017, when there were 47,600.

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That’s not enough of an improvement, especially when you realize overdose deaths are still more than twice as common as they were a decade ago. The incremental change also doesn’t bring much comfort to those who have lost a loved one to opioids — or those who lose loved ones this year.

Cancer does claim a far greater number of lives — it’s the second leading cause of death behind heart disease, according to the CDC. But the Washington Post reports most of those deaths occur later in life, so the years of life lost per death are small. Opioid overdoses are often claiming people in their 40s, 30s, even 20s, so each death represents many decades of life lost.

U.S. residents die sooner than residents of other developed countries — we are outpaced on life expectancy by Chile, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, the UK, Greece, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, France, Israel, Italy, Spain and Japan, among many others, according to the World Bank.

Those countries are all members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; the U.S. is, too. Across all the OECD members, average life expectancy is almost 81 years — more than two years longer than in the U.S. That’s despite the U.S. spending nearly double on health care as a percentage of gross domestic product. According to the Post’s reporting, the U.S. spends 16.9% of its GDP on health, while the OECD average is 8.8%.

Clearly just throwing money at the problem won’t fix it. There’s a human element to whatever solutions are out there.

We must continue to work together across the aisle, across the train tracks, across county and state lines.

We must continue to share information and communicate effectively, so the number of people who understand the problem and are willing to help grows.

We must continue to ask our leaders to think outside of the box, find new solutions and implement evidence-supported methods of reducing opioid use and helping people overcome opioid addiction.

If we can do all that, the data will hopefully show we’ve taken another step forward next year.

— The Advocate-Messenger