Did the Opioid Crisis Make the United States More Dangerous than Syria in 2018?

The Centers for Disease Control just released provisional data for overdose deaths in 2018. 68,557 Americans lost their lives from overdoses last year. Fortunately, that number is down from 70,076 in 2017. However, we are still in a crisis, and we need a stronger response to this enemy.

Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria also continued in 2018. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that 6,349 civilians lost their lives as a result of the war and attacks from ISIS. In addition, over five million people have fled the country and over ten million need humanitarian assistance.

In America, despite the problems and dangers that many people face, we are not in a civil war. No American would choose to live in Syria today rather than America. However, our citizens do face a significant risk of death from drug overdoses.

Seeing the crises in both countries leads to an outrageous and perhaps offensive question: Was the risk of overdose death in the US greater than the risk of civilian death in Syria in 2018?

Consider the numbers: We lost 26 people per 100,000 to overdoses. In Syria, 35 civilians per 100,000 died as a result of the civil war. That number is approximately the same across all age groups. At first glance, it seems that the risk of dying from overdose here is less than the risk of dying from the war in Syria.

However, if we consider the overdose data by age group, we see that for people aged 25 to 54, we lost 38 people per 100,000 to overdose deaths. So, the overdose death rate for that age group is higher than the civilian death rate in Syria. In other words, if you were born between 1964 and 1993, you had a higher chance of surviving Syria’s civil war than surviving America’s opioid crisis.

Where is our will to fight this domestic battle? Our nation’s tepid reaction is not aligned with how we usually react to threats and crises.

Two generations ago, when polio killed 3,145 people in one year, we fought back and developed a vaccine. When 2,996 people were killed in the Twin Towers attack, we fought back against Al Queda. In fact, the brave citizens on Flight 93 battled immediately and downed their plane to prevent further deaths of fellow Americans. We need that level of fight now.

If we had the will to fight the opioid crisis, we would see additional and more forceful tactics.

We would see tighter controls on prescriptions. Records from the DEA released on July 17 show that 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were shipped between 2006 and 2012. A large portion found their way onto the streets. Since then, prescription rates have been dropping about 10% per year, but when you start with such a high number, they need to drop faster.

A stronger response would include more medication, less incarceration, and more treatment. When people are in fact incarcerated for possession of this disease, they would be allowed to continue their doctor-prescribed medicine. Many people have died because the jail would not let them continue taking the opiate blocker, Suboxone, and they were then released unprotected. We would also see broader access to life-saving naloxone. Treatment would be more science-based.

In short, we would see a lot more fight. What kind of a nation will America become without the will to fight a clear and present danger that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives and will probably claim another 500,000 in the next decade?

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Louis Lamoureux © 2020