US Health Catastrophe: Drug Overdose Deaths Approach 60,000 A Year

By E.P. Milligan
World Socialist Web Site (8/10/17)

Drug overdose deaths in the United States are rising sharply, the National Center for Health Statistics reported Tuesday. For the year-long period ending January 2017, total US drug overdose deaths totaled 64,070, up 21 percent from 52,898 for the previous year. This is equivalent to 175 people dying every day from drug overdoses.

Based on more comprehensive data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, whose figures lag behind the social reality by about a year, more than 500,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in the period between 2000 and 2015—roughly equivalent to the population of Sacramento, California.

More Americans have died of drug overdoses in the 21st century than in all the US wars of the 20th and 21st century combined: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The horrific scale of loss does not stem from an unexpected or unstoppable epidemic, like the medieval Black Death or the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919. It is not a natural but a social plague, the byproduct of the collapse of living standards and the destruction of jobs for tens of millions of working people.

The American ruling class has no solution to this health crisis except its usual prescription for every social problem: more police repression.

The focal point of the drug overdose epidemic is deindustrialized America: factory towns, centers of coal mining or timber harvesting, areas targeted for devastation by the profit system.

Broad swathes of the United States are barren shells of what once used to be. Factories and mills have closed, towns have withered, schools and hospitals have shuttered. Unemployment and underemployment run rampant, while the vast majority of jobs available to workers come with pay so miserable most have to take on a second or even third job just to survive. A decade after the financial meltdown of 2008, social inequality has reached intolerable proportions. It is within this context that one must understand the drug epidemic.

In previous decades, overdose deaths mainly afflicted the young and a subculture of the drug-addicted, many of them socially isolated or aging. This is no longer the case. There has been an 8 percent spike in overdose death rates for individuals between the ages of 25 to 44 in every racial and ethnic group in the US during the period of 2010 to 2015. Over the span of a mere five years, a substantial section of the American workforce—individuals in the prime of their lives—has been killed off.

Role of Big Pharma

Drug overdoses now account for more deaths than guns or car accidents. The overall death rate in 2015 was significantly higher than during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1995, the last time that US life expectancy actually decreased. The driving force is opioid overdoses, which now account for around six in 10 drug deaths. This is in large part due to the influx of cheap and accessible opioid prescription medicines over the past decade, substances produced, distributed and heavily marketed by American pharmaceutical companies, at enormous profit.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported that overdose deaths reached a record 19.9 per 100,000 people in the third quarter of 2016—a sharp spike from the previously recorded 16.7 over the same three-month period a year earlier. The first two quarters of 2016 now show death rates of 18.9 and 19.3, also far larger than previous data suggested.

Even the current report remains contested by some experts, who think real numbers are higher still. …

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