Saturday, October 28, 2017

Overdose Deaths Outdistance Cars and Guns

Because I live in a somewhat populous urban area with all of the usual problems humans are heir to, I haven't fully realized the out-sized effect the opioid crisis has had in less-populated areas of the United States. But the other day I heard this fact from Vox, and it made me take notice:

In one year, drug overdoses killed more Americans than the Vietnam War did.

That's based on 2016 data, and the number is 65,000 human beings.

For reference, two of the usual horrible statistics I follow are the number of people killed by cars and the number killed by guns. Both of those have usually been between 30,000 and 40,000 people a year these days.

Gun and vehicle death graph data through 2014, from the Violence Policy Center.
During the past decade, overdose deaths have swept past those other two major killers, reaching a number almost equal to the two combined.

Vox puts those numbers into more historical context:

In comparison, more than 58,000 US soldiers died in the entire Vietnam War, nearly 55,000 Americans died of car crashes at the peak of such deaths in 1972, more than 43,000 died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic's peak in 1995, and nearly 40,000 died of guns during the peak of those deaths in 1993.
Currently, opioid drugs are killing more people per year than our worst non-disease killers (and HIV) at their worst moments in history. Vox reports that the most recent numbers, which are not yet fully released, show "...there was a 19 percent increase between 2015 and 2016 alone, which would be the largest known increase in drug overdose deaths for any single year yet. Although it’s hard to say for certain, ‘the problem has continued to worsen in 2017.’”

What happens when we take those gun and vehicle death stats from the Violence Policy Center and lay them onto the Vox overdose graph? (With some gun and vehicle data added for 2015 and 2016 that I gathered from a couple of other sources):

Red = overdoses; blue = vehicles; purple = guns. 

From this we see vehicle-related deaths dropped off a lot after the 2008 economic crisis, when the number of miles driven per year also dropped; and that they are on their way to recovering to pre-recession levels. Gun deaths are very slowly creeping up, mostly from suicides, which account for about two-thirds of the total. Both of these totals, however, are significantly lower than their death tolls at their peaks (1972 for vehicles, 1993 for guns, though both of those were taken from a significantly lower population).

With all that said, the divergence of the overdose line from the other two lines is startling, and as I said, it's getting close to the combined total of the other two. Maybe it will match their total in 2017 unless vehicle drivers have a really bang-up year.

A couple of reminders:
  • solving the drug crisis isn't about punitiveness, and not even totally about treatment as it's normally construed; it's about the social conditions that make drugs a logical choice for people
  • opioid overdoses are usually caused by combining the opioid with alcohol, rather than from the opioid itself. This fact is almost never mentioned and if users knew it, maybe fewer of them would die.
Past posts related to drug addiction:

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