The mortality rates for heart disease, HIV and cancer have decreased for young whites aged 25-34 while drug related deaths due to both oxycontin and heroin have skyrocketed. At the same time, the death rate for young blacks due to overdoses is falling.
Young whites death rates for overdoses for both illegal and prescription drugs are the highest since the Vietnam War of the mid-1960s. In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25-34 was 5 times its level in 1999 and the rate for 35-44 year old whites tripled during that same period.
Why? Researchers speculate that young uneducated whites are isolated and have been left out of the economy. The death rate for those without a high school diploma rose by 23% compared with only 4% for those with a college degree or more. It’s easy for them to get cheap heroin and prescription narcotic drugs.
There is an ironic result of racial stereotyping that is contributing to the fact that blacks have been spared the worst of the narcotic epidemic. According to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the chief medical officer for Phoenix House Foundation, a national drug and alcohol treatment company, studies show that doctors are much more hesitant to prescribe painkillers to minority patients, worried that they might sell them on the street. That combined with the fact that there are fewer cases of AIDs in the black community.
Anne Case, a Princeton economist published a paper showing drug overdose death rates for middle-aged whites rising in contrast to those in every other rich country in the world while at the same time, deaths from traditional killers for which treatment has improved over the past decade—heart disease, HIV and cancer—went down. Drug abuse is now part of the American political discourse as never before.
Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California attributes the increase in drug deaths to social factors. Poverty and stress are risk factors for misuse of prescription narcotics. “For too many, and especially for too many women, they are not in stable relationships, they don’t have jobs, they have children they can’t feed and clothe, and they have no support network. There are people whose lives are so hard they break.” What to do?
Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Mass is doing something unique to combat drug overdoses. He has offered heroin users an alternative to prison. Last year he posted on Facebook : “Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc.) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged.” Instead he sends them for treatment immediately. His post was viewed by 2.4 million people.
56 police departments in 17 states have followed his lead to address the epidemic of drug overdoses which has killed 47,055 people in 2014 throughout the country. That is more than those who died in car accidents, homicides or suicides. Gloucester, which does not provide treatment per se, has developed a nationwide network of centers willing to provide beds and take referrals by the police, regardless of whether the person has insurance. The idea that addiction should be treated as a health issue instead of a crime has gained support throughout the political sector as heroin has spread from inner cities to the nation’s suburbs, rural outposts and the white middle class.