National Emergency: The 7 Things You Need to Know About America’s Opioid Addiction Crisis


The U.S. is in the middle of a national public health emergency. | John Moore/Getty Images

Nearly half of Americans have someone close to them who is addicted to drugs or has been in the past, according to Pew Research Center. What used to be considered a far-off problem is now a primary focus of the Trump administration. Opioids, which come in the form of street drugs and prescription painkillers, are more common than ever. That’s led President Donald Trump to declare America’s opioid addiction a national public health emergency. This goes one step further than the federal commission he created earlier in 2017.

The economic and financial burden is significant. So how is this growing epidemic affecting you? And what will a slapping a “national emergency” label do to help America move forward? We looked into that. But first, let’s consider what led Trump to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency.

1. America’s opioid addiction is a growing problem

One glimpse at opioid statistics will settle any argument that the opioid epidemic is under control. Deaths from drug overdose nearly quadrupled in the past 15 years, claiming roughly 64,000 Americans in 2016, according to The New York Times. Death rates are historically higher for middle-aged men, but the trends show deaths among women have increased by 400% from 1999 to 2010. Drugs are increasingly available, expanding opioids’ reach. The economic burden? It’s in the billions.

2. It’s a $78.5 billion burden

Opioids affect so many lives. | John Moore/Getty Images

  • Caring for America’s opioid addiction costs our economy about $78.5 billion.

America’s opioid epidemic triggers astronomically high costs for the society, from overdose to abuse and dependence. A study published in the journal Medical Care estimates the American economic burden to be about $78.5 billion. Employers lose nearly $10 billion in lost productivity and absenteeism to due opioid addiction. Plus, employee health care costs double for addicted people versus nonaddicted employees.

As we’ll see, the costs don’t stop there. Data shows opioid addictions affect average Americans in more ways than one, including job opportunities, government spending, and education. But first, you must somehow resist temptation.

3. There’s money in addiction

overdose kit

Big Pharma is making billions. | John Moore/Getty Images

  • The opioid market does nearly $10 billion in sales per year in the United States.

To even begin combating such issues, Americans must first rebel against a strong force: the drug companies. Pharmaceutical companies have long fueled the nation’s need for drug dependence, often overstating the benefits while glossing over the risks of addiction with these medications.

A recent lawsuit accused multiple major drug companies of allocating enormous monetary resources “on promotional activities and materials that falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain.” Even Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, pleaded guilty to charges suggesting it misled the public over how addictive the drug was.

Why? It all comes back to money. Addiction is money. The opioid market does nearly $10 billion in sales per year, according to a Washington Post report. Purdue Pharma brings in about $3 billion in annual revenue thanks to its highly addictive pill. And of course, the founder of Insys Therapeutics — the maker of fentanyl, one of the most dangerous narcotics on the market — is worth almost $2 billion.

Unfortunately, the life-altering consequences of addiction are widespread across America.

4. Missing: Working-age men

anti-drug rally

The number of people affected is staggering. | John Moore/Getty Images

  • The labor force participation rate is directly affected by drug abuse.

If jobs are being created and unemployment is declining, then why are there so few people looking for work? According to a CNBC report, the blame is partially on opioid addiction. A Goldman Sachs economist discussed the economic impact of the opioid crisis and noted fewer prime-age men are participating in the labor force than in the past — many of whom are taking prescription pain medication. The crisis seriously affects the U.S. labor market as the labor force participation rate — the number of people working or actively looking for work — has declined since the 2008 recession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The growing opioid epidemic makes finding permanent work less of a priority. A Beige Book report noted this could be because an increased number of job applicants struggles to pass drug tests required for employment.

5. Drug abuse leads to unemployment

There is a very obvious correlation. | John Moore/Getty Images

  • There’s a direct link between drug use and unemployment.

Labor economist Alan Krueger found labor force participation has dropped in areas where more opioids are prescribed. That’s because a high number of the prime-age working population takes prescription pain medication on a regular basis.

Regardless of whether these people are on disability and taking pain medications for injuries that make employment unlikely or addiction to these medications is prolonging unemployment, it’s clear drug abuse leads to a slippery slope. Many agree fixing the job crisis begins first with the drug crisis.

In a hearing about opioid impact on the workforce, Brent Orrell, vice president of family and economic stability at consulting firm ICF International, noted, “It’s not only unemployment, it’s breakdown of families, it’s the dissolution of other community institutions, it’s problems in marriage, it’s all sorts of things that feed into it.”

6. States spend billions to keep addicts in prison 

Getting addicts help rather than jail time could free up funds for other things. | John Moore/Getty Images

The U.S. incarceration rate is 725 per every 100,000 people. A large portion of these sentences are drug-related, so it makes sense that we allocated billions of dollars to criminal justice systems each year. Roughly half of U.S. federal inmates are in prison for drug offenses, and 16% of state prisoners have the same charge.

Reducing the opioid problem, and thus the spending, could free up additional resources elsewhere. For example, the U.S spends more on criminal justice than education in many states. But it seems Trump is in a lose-lose situation. Many experts suggest addiction treatment in prison to help resolve the issue, yet lawmakers simultaneously propose spending cuts to the very same department.

7. Treatment might be cheaper

Treatment would be more cost-effective in the long run. | John Moore/Getty Images

  • Treating prisoners with an addiction could prove to be a cost-effective method to overcoming the opioid epidemic.

Even as the debate continues over treating the drug crisis as a health problem rather than a criminal justice issue, many states have passed some type of drug reform to combat the problem. Kentucky passed a bill that calls for harsher penalties, up to 10 years, for those who deal opioid painkillers illegally. The state also pioneered in-prison rehabilitation.

The jury’s still out on whether locking up those with addictions rather than treating them is the best use of the country’s money. But treatment has been shown to be effective. Time reports it reduces crime rates by 45% as well as government spending by over $6,000 for every person who receives treatment.

With so much at stake, both personally and financially, how will Trump’s newest emergency declaration help tackle the epidemic?

What the national emergency means for the future

Donald Trump

The president and first lady have both attempted to address the issue. | Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

  • Declaring a national public health emergency helps assign temporary appointments of specialized personnel to address the emergency.

The formal declaration elevates the severity of the national problem, meaning that additional aid is on the way. There’s no indication how this will play out, but the president did release some details. Declarations of this nature permit quick appointments of personnel to deal with the issue, more flexible use of $1 million worth grant money, and expanded telemedicine services that treat people in rural areas where doctor access is limited.

Trump also announced in an October speech “a new policy to overcome a restrictive 1970s-era rule that prevents states from providing care at certain treatment facilities with more than 16 beds for those suffering from drug addiction.” In his speech, he addressed better training for doctors administering these drugs to consumers and $50 million to aid law enforcement programs for prisoners facing addiction. He also began an $81 million plan to coordinate better pain management techniques for veterans.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.

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