The challenges of the Opioid Epidemic

In his joint address to Congress on  February 28th, President Trump promised to put an end to the “terrible drug epidemic” affecting the country. In terms of the drug overdoses, the President’s vow, as well as carefully-crafted solutions are desperately needed.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, there were more than 52,000 deaths due to drug overdoses, mostly related to the use of opioid painkillers and heroin. The number of deaths due to overdoses in 2015 represents the highest record of drug overdoses for a single year in United States history. As shown in the map, deaths involving overdoses from opioids are highly concentrated across rural Appalachia, including counties in West Virginia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New England, and Ohio.

Figure 1

Several programs and policies have been changed to address the problem. Although many states have already restricted the use of prescription opioid and punished many unscrupulous doctors, a lot of addicts turned to using heroin instead of painkillers. As the chart shows, starting from 2010, drug overdose deaths involving heroin have increased rapidly, and the growth rate has been even higher than the total opioid deaths increased rate.

Many states have increasingly promoted the use of naloxone, a drug that eliminates the effects of heroin, to reduce opioid-related deaths, and many of them have also passed some versions of Naloxone Access Law. A recent report from NBER Program suggests that the adoption of Naloxone Access Law is related to a 9-11 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths.

Figure 2

Those reformulations are still not enough to solve the crisis. According to The Economist, fentanyl, the synthetic opioid painkiller which is more powerful than morphine, has been gradually spreading and has already helped to increase the fatal overdose rate in 2016.


Xuewei Chen

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