Opioid Overdose: America’s Addiction Problem

On March 29, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order Establishing the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, in response to the dramatic uptick in deaths from drug overdoses; according to the CDC, in 2015, more than 52,000 deaths were caused by drug overdoses, and of these, upwards of 33,000 were caused by some type of opioid.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will lead this newly established commission, and is particularly well-suited to doing so, given his longstanding treatment of drug addiction as, “primarily a public health problem instead of a criminal justice issue.”  This viewpoint has only recently gained prominence in policy spheres; previously, the “War on Drugs” mentality focused on punitive measures for drug abuse, such as increased prison sentences, as opposed to providing greater access to treatment, rehabilitation programs, and other public health initiatives for drug users.

Though both public and private sector publications have long identified drug usage and overdose as a key issue facing the country, the 2017 County Health Rankings Key Findings Report, released in March 2017 and now in its eighth iteration, makes a point of discussing this epidemic in the U.S. as one key factor that is leading to a spike in premature death rates amongst Americans (premature death defined as death under 75 years of age).  The report summarizes the key findings of the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, and concludes in part that,

More Americans are dying prematurely, notably among our younger generations […] Drug overdose and other injury deaths heavily influenced the rise in premature death […] Drug overdose was by far the single leading cause of premature death by injury in 2015 and contributed to the accelerated rise in premature death from 2014 to 2015. Large suburban metro counties went from having the lowest to the highest rate of premature death due to drug overdose within the past decade.

Though the report also indicates that, “for those ages 15–24, an increase in drug overdose deaths was part of the equation, but more deaths due to motor vehicle crashes and firearm fatalities also played a role in the accelerated rise in premature death,” it is clear that drug overdoses were critical in elevating the number of premature deaths.  Thus, President Trump’s Executive Order is the first step in a long process of solving a nationwide epidemic of drug abuse, but what remains to be seen are the next steps that the newly established Commission will take in combating the problem.  The hope, of course, is that whatever those steps may be, next year’s report from County Health Rankings will demonstrate their effectiveness, and the success of the President’s initiative.