Public policy changes that increase access to prescription opioids, alcohol, and illegal drugs may reduce life expectancy, according to a study published in BMC Medicine.
Though life expectancy has steadily increased over the last century, drug and alcohol-related deaths have increased in recent years. According to a 2015 assessment by the Drug Enforcement Administration, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports prescription opioid overdoses killed more than 14,000 people in 2014. Alcohol abuse killed 88,000 people each year from 2006-2010, accounting for 1 in 10 deaths among adults ages 20-64.
Life Expectancy Effects of Addiction Policy Changes
Researchers looked at the effects of addiction policy changes in the United States, Mexico, and former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) nations.
Prescription opioid use in the U.S. has increased since the mid-1990s. The study’s authors suggest this change is due in part to policy changes allowing general practitioners to prescribe opioids for chronic pain. This increase in access to prescription opioids correlates with an increase in opioid overdose deaths. Between 1999 and 2013, mortality increased 9% among non-Hispanic whites, even though life expectancy continued rising among other groups.
In Mexico, life expectancy increased for six decades before 2000 and then stagnated following an increase in drug-related violence, including wars between gangs and law enforcement. For men, life expectancy decreased after 2005.
Policies to Reduce Drug-Related Deaths
Based on these three case studies, the study’s authors recommend several policies to reduce drug deaths. Those include:
- Monitoring of substance abuse and diseases related to substance addiction, including rapid responses to sudden rises in abuse or declines in life expectancy
- Stronger regulation of legal substances, including regulations that increase price
- Decriminalizing the use of illicit drugs
- Access to affordable treatment
- Reduction in the stigma associated with drug addiction and addiction treatment
- 2015 national drug threat assessment summary [PDF]. (2015, October). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration.
- Alcohol use and your health. (2016, February 4). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- New international research reinforces the link between public policy and life expectancy. (2016, March 21). Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-03/cfaa-nir032116.php
- Prescription opioid overdose data. (2016, March 12). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html
- Rehm, J., Anderson, P., Fischer, B., Gual, A., & Room, R. (2016). Policy implications of marked reversals of population life expectancy caused by substance use. BMC Medicine, 14(1). doi:10.1186/s12916-016-0590-x
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