Study Links Public Policy Changes to Life Expectancy

Close-up of hands shaking pills out of a bottlePublic 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 the former USSR, public policy between 1984 and 1987 changed to reduce access to alcohol. During that time, life expectancy increased 1.3 years for women and 3.2 years for men. When governments abandoned these policies between 1987 and 1994—making alcohol readily available—life expectancy dropped 3.3 years for women and 7.3 years for men.

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


  1. 2015 national drug threat assessment summary [PDF]. (2015, October). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration.
  2. Alcohol use and your health. (2016, February 4). Retrieved from
  3. New international research reinforces the link between public policy and life expectancy. (2016, March 21). Retrieved from
  4. Prescription opioid overdose data. (2016, March 12). Retrieved from
  5. 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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  • Leave a Comment
  • Rey

    March 24th, 2016 at 2:33 PM

    Now can anyone tell me what sense it will make to have people who already have problems have more access to drugs or alcohol? Honestly that makes no sens e to me.

  • Monica

    March 24th, 2016 at 8:17 PM

    @Rey, it does sound concerning to increase accessibility to drugs to people who have substance abuse issues. However, when a policy as such is established, people with addiction are now not only able to receive monitored/safe amounts of drugs, but additional support such as referrals to counselling, treatment centres, and peer support programs. People who are dealing with substance use will use regardless of whether or not it is accessible (for example, Prohibition), when we begin to decriminalize such behaviour and offer support rather than punish, segregate or marginalize these people by restricting their use of drugs for things like coping, we stigmatize them, which only makes the problem worse. Hope this helped to make some sense for you.

  • Rey

    March 26th, 2016 at 9:43 AM

    I know, I know but it just seems to be such a pervasive problem that what would be best would be to give them treatment but also to stop their access to it.

  • Mina

    March 28th, 2016 at 4:51 PM

    How are the numbers looking in places like Colorado and Oregon where there has been a legalization of marijuana for a while now? Just curious

  • Linc

    March 29th, 2016 at 11:23 AM

    Those putting any of the policies into play are just like the rest of us, they are human and we do what we think will be for the good of all and then we learn that it really may not be that great for any of us. But we make mistakes, and I think that in times like this they would be called honest mistakes. You never know what will happen with policies like these until they are implemented.

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