Drug Overdose: The Real American Epidemic

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Recently, there has been much talk of various “epidemics” in America. The three most commonly mentioned are suicide, gun violence, and drug overdose. A close examination of the data, however, reveals two surprises: First, one of them is not actually an epidemic. Second, one of them is a much bigger epidemic than most people realize. (See chart.)

The “suicide epidemic” (red line) has received the most attention as of late. This is for good reason. At a rate of 12.54 deaths per 100,000 Americans, the suicide rate is at a 25-year high. The CDC, which provides publicly accessible data (via WISQARS) from 1999 to 2012, shows that the suicide rate over that period has increased by nearly 19.7%.

Similarly, school shootings and other mass killings result in highly partisan debates about the “gun violence epidemic.” However, the CDC data does not show that this even is an epidemic. Instead, the homicide-by-firearm rate (purple line) has been declining from a high of 4.27 per 100,000 in 2006 to 3.76 per 100,000 in 2012, a roughly 12% drop. The average American is more than three times as likely to commit suicide than to be shot and killed.

The most shocking data are the deaths due to unintentional drug poisonings (green line). From 1999 to 2012, deaths by drug overdose increased from 4.00 per 100,000 to 10.54 per 100,000, a whopping 164% increase. While the suicide rate has slowly climbed over the past decade, the death rate from unintentional drug overdoses has skyrocketed. Indeed, the term “epidemic” was invented for trend lines like this. (Note: More detailed information on what exactly constitutes unintentional drug poisoning can be found in the ICD-10 under codes X40-X49.)

It should be noted that accidental drug overdoses include far more people than just celebrities and gangbangers who snort cocaine and guzzle alcohol. Indeed, a substantial proportion of overdoses are with prescription drugs, such as opioids (e.g., OxyContin, Vicodin) and benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, Ativan). Additionally, as reported this week in an article appropriately titled “The Great American Relapse,” The Economist notes that heroin is making a comeback. Deaths from heroin overdoses have doubled from 2010 to 2012 as opioid painkiller addicts forego expensive prescription meds for cheaper heroin from the street.

As it turns out, our society’s habit of reaching for the medicine cabinet for every (heart)ache and pain is quite literally killing us.

The explosive growth in the number of deaths due to unintentional drug overdoses is nothing short of a national emergency. Yet, the phenomenon gets very little attention in the popular press. Unfortunately for our highly medicated society, this is one problem that we cannot solve by popping more pills.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Accessed: 23-Nov-2014.