The United States has been gripped by a dire drug crisis. In 2017 alone, drug overdoses caused the deaths of some 70,000 people, with opioids being the main driver of this tragic statistic. So grave is the crisis that Americans are now more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a car crash, according to the National Safety Council. The situation is unprecedented not only in the context of United States history, but also in relation to other countries; as Ed Cara reports for Gizmodo a new study has found that America experiences more drug-related deaths than any other wealthy nation.
Published in the journal Population and Development Review, the study was carried out by Jessica Ho, an assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California. Ho used data from the Human Mortality Database and the World Health Organization Mortality Database to analyze rates of drug overdose deaths in 18 countries between 2003 and 2013. She found that overdose death rates in the U.S. are 3.5 times higher, on average, than those of the other 17 countries. The rates are nearly two times higher than in countries with the next highest numbers of drug overdose deaths—specifically “Anglophone” countries, like Canada, the U.K. and Australia, and Nordic countries, like Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Drug overdose mortality in America is an alarming 27 times higher than in Italy and Japan, which have the lowest rates of the countries analyzed.
“While the United States is not alone in experiencing increases in drug overdose mortality, the magnitude of the differences in levels of drug overdose mortality is staggering,” Ho says.
The unmatched number of drug overdose deaths in the United States is impacting the country’s life expectancy, which has been steadily dropping due to the opioid crisis. By 2013, drug overdoses contributed to 12 percent of the male life expectancy gap between the United States and other wealthy countries, and eight percent of the life expectancy gap among women. In the absence of overdose deaths, the gap that widened between 2003 and 2013 would have been one-fifth smaller for men and one-third smaller for women, according to the study.
“On average, Americans are living 2.6 fewer years than people in other high-income countries,” Ho explains. “This puts the United States more than a decade behind the life expectancy levels achieved by other high-income countries. American drug overdose deaths are widening this already significant gap and causing us to fall even further behind our peer countries.”
This wasn’t always the case. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States was not an outlier in terms of drug overdose deaths, and Nordic countries were experiencing the highest rates among wealthy nations. But a number of factors—including false reassurances by pharmaceutical companies that opioids are not addictive, which in turn led to their overprescription as painkillers—have driven the current epidemic. As efforts to decrease opioid prescriptions have taken hold, addicted patients have turned to heroin and, more recently, fentanyl, a synthetic drug even more deadly than prescription pills and heroin.
In other countries, by contrast, opioid prescriptions have been tightly controlled. In Japan, for instance, doctors are required to undergo extensive training before they can prescribe opioids for non-cancer related pain. In France, Italy and Portugal, patients have to be registered before they can receive opioid medications. But Ho notes in her study that significant increases in opioid-related deaths have been documented in Australia and Canada, where opioid consumption has also increased. And while not as dramatic as the situation in the United States, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have also seen higher rates of opioid prescribing in recent years.
“The use of prescription opioids and synthetic drugs like fentanyl are becoming increasingly common in many high-income countries,” Ho says, “and constitute a common challenge to be confronted by these countries.”