American adults expect that, on average, they have a good chance of living longer, healthier lives than their parents. They hope their own kids can say the same thing.
For the second year in a row, however, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found the average life expectancy in the United States is lower than it was the year before. This is not the direction that a modern country wants to go, and immediate action needs to be taken.
The CDC also found overdose deaths skyrocketed among working-age people (people aged 15 to 64). This has led many to suggest the obvious connection between the opioid epidemic and a declining life expectancy in the United States. If drug overdoses are one of the driving factors behind the decline in life expectancy, then it presents an obvious target for policymakers to address.
Communities Sue For Justice
Families and communities around the country know this truth: real recovery takes time, energy and resources. They also know each and every death was preventable. Opioids were marketed and sold to America as medicine. Pharmaceutical companies knew they were dangerous, but downplayed those dangers to doctors in order to increase sales. Without the proliferation of pills, how many people would still be alive?
“We want a change in behavior on the part of these companies,” says Paul Hanly, of Simmons Hanley Conroy. Hanly was recently named co-lead in the prescription opioid multidistrict litigation (MDL). This federal litigation includes over 200 civil cases brought by local governments in federal court that are suing the pharmaceutical companies responsible for America’s deadliest addiction.
The MDL alleges the epidemic is the result of a deliberate strategy by pill-makers to sell more drugs. Cities, counties and states have had to spend billions of dollars to respond to this completely avoidable epidemic. Opioid makers enjoyed billions of dollars in profits while communities suffered the horrific side-effects of these powerful narcotics. As Hanly explains:
“The opioid epidemic is the consequence of a decades-long conspiracy of the opioid makers to change the prescribing patterns of physicians in the United States.
[Drug companies] point to everyone but themselves. So, they claim that it’s doctors who are overprescribing, it’s patients who are abusing, etcetera, etcetera . . . they take no responsibility for their own actions and that’s why we have a civil litigation system to hopefully achieve justice.”
These companies misrepresented the safety of these drugs, and as communities struggle to pick up the pieces, the companies refuse to see a problem with their bloodstained profits.
Decrease in Life Expectancy Underscores Long-term Costs of Epidemic
Even a tiny drop in life expectancy is a catastrophe. When the news broke that American life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row, it made major headlines. This is a case where a closer look at the numbers makes things seem even more dire.
Most of the information journalists are citing come from two data briefs published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the CDC. The latest data comes from 2016 because information from 2017 is not yet available.
Ominous Trends in American Mortality
In Mortality in the United States, 2016 (data brief No. 293), researchers found that the life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2016 was 78.6 years, which was a decrease of 0.1 year from 2015.
Life expectancy is defined by the CDC as “the expected average number of years of life remaining at a given age.” This means that a baby born in 2016 should expect a shorter life than one born in 2015. This is not good, and what’s worse is that is the second year in a row that life expectancy has dropped.
In the brief, they also reported that working age people had the highest increase in death rates. For people aged 25-34 there was a 10.5 percent increase and for people aged 35-44 there was a 6.7 percent increase.
The Terrible Consequences of Opioids and Fentanyl
Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2016 (data brief No. 294) paints a sad picture of the devastation wrought by millions of pills that flooded America. Since 1999, the year that Big Pharma started pushing opioids for long-term pain, enough pills have been prescribed to medicate every U.S. adult around the clock for a month.
In 2016, there were more than 63,600 drug overdose deaths in the United States – a stunning 21 percent increase from the year before. The hardest hit populations were persons aged 25-34, an age-group which saw a staggering 29 percent increase in drug overdose death rate from 2015-2016.
These recent increases are part of a longer trend. Since 1999, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths increased “on average by 10 percent per year from 2006 to 2014, and by 18 percent per year from 2014 to 2016.” The rate is age-adjusted to account for the fact that different age-groups have different rates of mortality.
The problem is terrible, and it is only intensifying. One of the main drivers of these increases are synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, and tramadol. The number of overdoses related to these drugs doubled between 2015 and 2016, according to the brief.
What Can Be Done?
Taken together, these data briefs point toward an obvious connection between the opioid epidemic and the specter of a declining life expectancy. But people do have power to work against these troubling trends.
“We certainly can see improvements in American mortality if opioid addiction is turned around,” says Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at the University of California Irvine. Like Hanly, he sees the over-prescription of opioids as one of the root causes of the epidemic. The recent statistics from the CDC are cause for alarm, but Noymer explains, the situation is not set in stone:
“Life expectancy is kind of like a barometer of current conditions more than a weather forecast of what’s going to happen next year . . .
If we change opioid prescribing practices we will see decreases, I’m confident, in drug overdose deaths.”
Opioids never should have been prescribed the way they were. Doctors knew that these drugs were too addictive to be prescribed for long term use. For Big Pharma, the responsible use of opioids was not generating enough money. They began telling doctors half-truths and outright lies in order to increase sales. In the words of Hanly:
“The defendants have manufactured, promoted and marketed opioids by omitting critical information that has long been known about the drugs’ addictive qualities and other risks associated with their prolonged use.”
People in the prime of their lives should not be losing their lives to a drug that is supposed to help them. People should not expect their children to have shorter lives.
In the search for profits, the pharmaceutical companies ushered our nation into a tragic era. Holding them accountable is going to be a long battle, but the upcoming MDL is a new opportunity for struggling communities to replenish resources spent fighting the epidemic.
For all the difficulties that lie ahead, the litigation process promises to bring to light the ugly deeds that began and stoked the flames of our nation’s opioid epidemic. In full view of the American people, perhaps the poisonous culture of Big Pharma will be forced to reckon with what it has become.
- Hedegaard H, Warner M, Miniño AM. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 294. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2017.
- Kochanek KD, Murphy SL, Xu JQ, Arias E. Mortality in the United States, 2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 293. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2017.