The opioid epidemic is real. Far more opioids (the term that includes opiates, naturally-derived from opium, and synthetic drugs) are consumed than could conceivably be used for medical reasons, whether for short-term use post-surgery or injury, or chronic use for terminal diseases like cancer. The explanation, at one level, is the excessive use of opioids for pain relief for chronic conditions (like back pain, for which other drugs are often more effective) or excessive duration for what should be short-term (acute) reasons, and the fact that they are very addictive. This last has led to the creation of new addicts, who have been placed on prescription opioids for pain, and means that they can be used to substitute for opiates (such as heroin) for those who became addicted to street drugs. This is especially true with the increased availability of extremely potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl (50-80 times more potent than morphine), but can go both ways; when those who have become addicted to prescription opioids find the supply drying up, they often move to heroin.
But, like most things, it is complicated. The biggest complication is that many of those who have become “hooked” on opioids are suffering in pain, and opioid withdrawal is, to put it mildly, not fun. The pain relief is greater than that of other pain relievers, for many (but not all) problems, but opioids increase tolerance, so the doses people need to take to relieve their pain, or get their high, continually increases. The “consensus” pendulum has swung, from the message that people are not getting sufficient pain relief (“pain is the fifth vital sign”) to “doctors are creating addicts by overprescribing opioids”. Patients – people -- are caught in the middle.
Another complication is, as is usual in any big issue in the US, race. Opiate addiction and problems were a focus more of criminalization than treatment when it was perceived as mainly a problem for minority populations. The increasing revelation of white, albeit often poorer, less educated, and more rural, white people suffering from the prevalence of opioid abuse, has changed the discussion. Not that this is unimportant – the message that for the first time in a century a portion of the population – middle aged white people – have an increasing death rate (discussed in Rising white midlife mortality: what are the real causes and solutions?, November 14, 2015, and based on the work of Case and Deaton, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”) is shocking. So is the finding that poor white women born in 1950 will live shorter lives than their mothers born in 1920 (“Life expectancy, socialism, and the determinants of health”, February 14, 2016). None of this to deny or ignore the fact that death rates for minorities, although dropping are still higher than those of whites.
The New York Times has had a series of exposé articles on the opioid crisis, and a recent installment completely pulls back the curtain on the marketing and sales practices of opioid manufacturers. “3,271 Pill Bottles, a Town of 2,831: Court Filings Say Corporations Fed Opioid Epidemic” reveals that many manufacturers, not simply Purdue, the maker of Oxy-Contin®, and many pharmacies including all the big chains, have been complicit in the spread of this epidemic. Its content is damning, and the evil acts of these companies are made public, and the information needed to ascertain the reason for the problem is clear.
But the Times does not explicitly call it out. That is because the problem is capitalism, specifically “unfettered” capitalism, essentially unregulated capitalism that not only permits, but encourages, anything that will make more money, regardless of the cost, including (and perhaps especially) the human cost. These corporations are responding to the pressure of Wall St. and their stockholders not only to make more money, but to “exceed expectations”. The value of a stock is not based on whether the company is actually earning a profit, but whether it is earning enough of a profit to please the casino players. This is augmented by the incentives for often huge bonuses for the top management based upon – how much profit the company makes. There are no bonuses for actually helping more people, or even not killing them, or not destroying the world. Sorry, you who die from opioids or suicide, you are collateral damage. Oh, yes, you also, future generations.
To be clear, this is not a result of Republican or Trumpian policies, although they have been both more open about it and have further pushed the envelope with their gargantuan tax cuts for corporations and the 0.1%. It has been the policy of every government at least since Reagan in the 1980s, Clinton and Obama certainly included. Of course, every US government has been pro-capitalist, but for much of the 20th century, starting with (Republican) Teddy Roosevelt, there were both implicit and explicit limits set. Even conservative economic guru Milton (“the only goal of a business is to maximize shareholder profit”) Friedman believed that monopolies were ultimately not a problem because technology and the market would take them down. He was wrong; there are no limits to what they will do for more money.
So we have Americans dying by the tens of thousands from opiate and opioid overdose, and from the “suicides of despair”. We have children being separated from their parents and migrants being housed in prisons because it makes money for the private prison industry, a major donor to politicians. (Kudos to Illinois for being the first state to ban private prisons.) We have the environment being irreparably destroyed for the profit of some companies, with government complicity. We have wars being fought across the globe, killing hundreds of thousands, and each being the potential spark that could destroy the world more quickly through nuclear war. We continue to increase the defense budget although we already spend several-fold more than all our potential adversaries put together, because it is the way that the federal government subsidizes US industries.
Why do we do these things? Our oligarchs (a term the media seems to reserve only for foreigners, especially Russians, even though the US has so many more of them) demand it, and pay for it, essentially through kickbacks. They care not for the future, even for their grandchildren, or for whether there is a world.
They must be stopped. Our health, and our lives, depend upon it.