The Opioid Crisis Killed Thousands in 2015. Here’s What We Can Do About It

By Austin Roscoe Published on December 23, 2016

Overdose deaths in America rose by over 5,000 from 2014 to 2015, a 11 percent increase that experts say was mostly due to the opioid crisis spreading across the country.

“One of the most heartbreaking problems I’ve faced as CDC director is our nation’s opioid crisis,” wrote Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Thomas Frieden, M.D. for on Saturday. “Lives, families, and communities continue to be devastated by this complex and evolving epidemic.”

According to the latest CDC data, released earlier this month, the number of U.S. drug overdose deaths increased from 47,055 in 2014 to 52,404 in 2015 — an increase of 5,349. Of those 52,404 overdose deaths in 2015, 33,091 involved opioids.

“This crisis was caused, in large part,” Frieden continues, “by decades of prescribing too many opioids for too many conditions where they provide minimal benefit and is now made worse by wide availability of cheap, potent and easily available illegal opioids.”

The opioid crisis is sometimes contrasted, especially by left-leaning politicians and commentators, with the crack cocaine epidemic that devastated black communities, especially young males, during the late 1980s, with two major differences — CDC data shows that the vast majority of opioid overdose victims in 2014 and 2015 were white, and a plurality was aged 45 to 54. (See the table immediately below.)

Data Census Race Age Groups Drug Overdose Deaths - 1000

So, What Can We Do?

Frieden’s plan to combat the escalating crisis is ­­two-fold.

First, Frieden asserts, “it is urgent and critical that we rescue people whose lives are at immediate risk.” He says it is critical that we expand first responders’ access to naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of an ongoing opioid overdose. He also calls for “increasing access to opioid use disorder treatment, with medication-assisted treatment” and supporting law enforcement in making illicit opioids more difficult to obtain.

Second, “while we implement these emergency response strategies,” Frieden says, “it is also important that we … prevent opioid use disorder in the first place.” For this, the CDC director points to “improving how providers prescribe opioids for pain treatment,” facilitating “better use of prescription drug monitoring programs” and building “healthy awareness of the risks and benefits among patients prescribed these drugs.”

Earlier this year, the CDC released its Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. Intended for use by primary care physicians, the guidelines are the first national standards ever released for prescription painkillers.

The latest report comes on the heels of President Obama signing the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed Congress nearly unanimously into law. Part of the bill designates $1 billion for “grants to States for the purpose of addressing the opioid abuse crisis.”

The Cures Act highlights the different approach taken to the opioid crisis, compared to the one that afflicted black communities three decades ago. The Reagan administration cracked down on crack cocaine addicts, who were often linked to an increase in violent crimes in black communities. The strategy today, based in part on a greater body of research and the specific intentions of the Obama administration, focuses more on the types of treatment in the Cures Act rather than punishment.

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