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Other Opinions: Overdose deaths keep reaching staggering highs

It seems counterintuitive that life expectancy would decline.

New medical knowledge, technology and pharmaceuticals have steadily increased life expectancy at birth in the modern era. In 1960 life expectancy was less the 70 years and it grew steadily to 79 years in 2014. But that progress came to a halt the last couple of years as life expectancy declined.

The decline in 2016 came for a staggering 21 percent increase in the death rate from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC noted that this slide backwards is unique to the U.S. Other developed countries in the world are not seeing a decline in life expectancy.

In 2016, 63,632 people died from overdoses — more than the number of people who die in auto accidents and gun violence combined.

A majority of those deaths are tied to opioid use and from heroin. Many people who initially become addicted to prescription pain pills later turn to heroin.

The startling numbers are another harsh reminder of how deeply the opioid tragedy has spread. And opioid addiction is an equal opportunity nightmare, affecting people in all age groups and socioeconomic situations.

The causes of the prescription drug problem are in many respects similar to that of tobacco. It has reached the heights it has in large part because of the pursuit of profits over people.

That's why several counties in Minnesota recently filed lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors for the public cost of the opioid crisis, arguing the companies fraudulently downplayed their addictiveness and sold larger quantities than necessary. If borne out, the actions of the drug companies should bring the same kind of financial penalty as for those of tobacco companies.

There is now an awareness of the extent and danger of the prescription drug crisis, which is a start. But there has yet to be an adequate, coordinated strategy to start reversing the tragic trajectory of addiction and overdose deaths.

One good place to start is for patients and health-care professionals to realize prescription pain killers need to be used more carefully or not at all. Studies in ER departments are showing that a proper mix of common over-the-counter pain killers are working just as well at reducing pain.

America can't continue down a path where life expectancy rates go down instead of up.—Mankato Free Press

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