Study Predicts Painkillers Will Kill Half A Million Americans Over The Next Decade

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

The opioid overdose crisis, which is set to kill a record number of Americans this year, is worsening and could claim nearly 500,000 lives over the next decade, according to new research.

Opioids kill nearly 100 people each day across the U.S. and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under the age of 50. More than two million Americans have some sort of physical dependence on opioids and nearly 100 million Americans currently have a prescription for the drugs. That appetite for painkillers may claim nearly half a million lives in the next decade, according to an analysis by STAT.

Their forecast is informed by public health experts at 10 universities throughout the U.S. and more than 40 interviews conducted with politicians and leading medical professionals. They fear the damage done by more than a decade of overprescribing and misleading advertising about the risks of painkillers will take years to undo.

“It’s like cigarettes in the ’50s: We look back at the way people smoked and promoted cigarettes as laughably backwards,” Dr. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard University, told STAT. “We have the same thing now — Oxycontin ads in medical journals where doctors would say, ‘Opioids are good for treating pain. They don’t have addictive potential.’ It’s possible 20 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘I cannot believe we promoted these dangerous, addictive medications that are only marginally more effective.'”

STAT predicts the annual death toll from opioids will rise by roughly 35 percent between 2015 and 2027. In their most pessimistic forecast, they predict up to 650,000 people could die from opioids over the next decade. The experts agree, even in a best-case scenario, the crisis will not visibly start to subside until after 2020.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said June 6 that drug deaths in the U.S. experienced the largest increase in recorded history in 2016, claiming more than 60,000 lives. He notes early data suggests deaths from opioids and other drugs will continue to increase in 2017.

Fatal overdoses from heroin quadrupled over the last five years nationally, according to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics Feb. 24. They say lower drug prices and ingredients with higher potency, like fentanyl, are driving the massive increase in heroin and general opioid abuse in the U.S. since 2010.

Authors of the study noted in 2010 only 8 percent of all fatal drug overdoses stemmed from heroin. In 2015, roughly 25 percent of fatal drug overdoses were caused by heroin.

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