America hasn’t seen such a surge in premature death in more than 50 years. The last time life expectancy across America dropped for 2 years in a row was back in 1962 and 3, when the country was hit by a persistent epidemic of deadly influenza.
But this time, it wasn’t matter of disproportionately elderly people succumbing to a killing virus, in 2015 and 2016 the causes of death were what some called “diseases of despair, accidental death by drug overdose or outright suicide. And the casualties were concentrated among people in the prime of life, ages 26 to 55, with men dying at twice the rate of women.
In 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 63,692 Americans died of a drug overdose, 21% more than the year before. More than 42,000 overdosed on opioids, an increase of 28%. But let’s dig deeper. 19,413, just under half the opioid deaths were caused by so-called synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its most deadly variant carfentanyl. That was a year to year increase of more than 100%…in other words, the fentanyls killed twice as many people in 2016 as 2015. Deaths due to the more traditional drugs of abuse, heroin and the first-generation opioid painkillers, hydrocodone and oxycodone were up as well, but there’s been a major shift in opioid consumption.
This suggests there needs to be some adjusting of strategies in slowing rates of addiction, overdose and death with better education, recovery and treatment programs. It also means new strategies for law enforcement, for drug agents, prosecutors and administrators so that they don’t lose the new war against fentanyl the way they have consistently lost the war to stop the distribution of hydrocodone and oxycodone, a.k.a. Vicodin and Oxy-Contin.
As our guest today, Lenny Bernstein of the Washington Post, and his investigative partner Scott Higham have shown, the DEA lost the opioid war not on the streets or even in the courts, but in the offices of corporate and government lawyers and Pharma-collaborators in Congress.
Lenny Bernstein is a medical and science reporter for the Washington Post. His continuing series of reports, done with investigative reporter Scott Higham, has revealed how political decisions have crippled the DEA’s efforts to control the flood of opioid drugs being sold across the United States. Lenny and Scott and their associate David Fallis won the 2016 Gorge Polk Award for Medical Reporting.
Sam Quinones’ book Dreamland was one of the first, probably the deepest, and still the among the best reports on the opioid epidemic.
Lenny Bernstein and Scott Higham of the Washington Post own the story of the unequal battle between law enforcement professionals at the DEA and million dollar pharmaceutical industry lawyers and acquiescent politicians over how hard to push against the spread of opioid drugs.
While Erika Kinetz of AP broke the story of made-in-China carfentanyl and how it gets to the US. Carfentanyl is the deadliest of the opioids.