When Politics is a Matter of Life and Death

America recently got some troubling news. For the second time in three years, life expectancy dropped in this country. That reverses a trend that had been building since World War I. What is most disturbing is that the two causes of this decline are completely preventable: drug overdoses and suicides.

More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year alone, according to the CDC. That number marks a nearly 10 percent increase from 2016 and the highest ever in the United States for a single year…

Recently, that rise has been partly driven by the opioid epidemic and a sharp uptick in the number of deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl — a stunning 45 percent leap in the span of a single year, from 2016 to 2017…

At the same time, suicide rates have also steadily increased, according to the CDC, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the breadth of the opioid crisis in this country. This clip from Dr. Keith Humphreys helped to put it in perspective.

Humphreys expanded on that in his article for the Washington Postin which he documented that the percentage of people in this country with chronic pain was similar to that of Italy and France. And yet:

United Nations data for 2012-2014 show that standard daily doses of opioids consumed per capita are roughly comparable in Italy (6,246) and France (8,706) but reach a staggering 50,142 in the United States. In other words, despite suffering chronic pain at a similar rate as Italians and the French, Americans consume six to eight  times as many opioid painkillers.

When it comes to suicide, people use a variety of methods, but the most effective and lethal tool is a gun. While homicides (especially mass shootings) garner the most headlines, almost twice as many people (approximately 23,000/year) die of suicide by firearm in this country.

Some public health professionals see a connection between these two trends.

But in general, says William Dietz of George Washington University, the main themes of the reports are “very disturbing” — partly because deaths from overdoses and suicides are likely linked. Both may be caused by social shifts in the U.S. that have caused people to become “less connected to each other in communities,” he tells Harris.

“There are some data to suggest that that’s led to a sense of hopelessness, which in turn could lead to an increase in rates of suicide and certainly addictive behaviors.”

When Dietz refers to the fact that people have become “less connected to each other,” I am reminded of the fact that former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy used to talk about the growing problem of loneliness among Americans and the fact that it posed a greater risk to mortality than smoking or obesity.

While it’s true that individuals with physical and mental health issues are taking the opioids and pulling the trigger, one has to wonder if there is a larger social and political climate that is a contributing factor.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that in a country exceptional in terms of the number of prescribed opioids and the availability of guns, we outpace the rest of the developed world in the number of overdoses and suicides. That’s where politics comes into play. Without a concerted effort to reduce the over-prescription of opioids and the availability of guns, we could continue to see a decline in the life expectancy of Americans. This is one of those times when politics is a life and death matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .