From the Journals

Opioid deaths in North America predicted to soar



Without bold and urgent action, including public health policy reform and stricter corporate regulations, an additional 1.2 million people in North America will die of an opioid overdose by 2029, according to an analysis by the Stanford-Lancet Commission.

“Over the past quarter-century, the opioid epidemic has taken nearly 600,000 lives and triggered a cascade of public health catastrophes such as disability, family breakdown, unemployment, and child neglect in North America,” commission chair Keith Humphreys, PhD, said in a news release.

“If no action is taken, by the end of this decade, we are predicting the number of deaths to be twice as high as it has been over the last 20 years,” said Dr. Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford (Calif.) University.

The report was published online Feb. 2, 2022, in The Lancet.

Blame it on COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic has both overshadowed and exacerbated the opioid crisis in North America, the commission pointed out in their report.

Their analysis suggests that 2020 was the worst year on record for overdose deaths in the United States and Canada in terms of both the total number of deaths and percentage annual increase.

In the United States, opioid overdose deaths increased by 37%, from 51,133 in 2019 to 70,168 in 2020, bringing the total number of deaths since 1999 to 583,000.

In Canada, opioid overdose deaths jumped by 72%, from 3,668 in 2019 to 6,306 in 2020, with a further 3,515 deaths reported in the first 6 months of 2021.

Although the 2020 spikes might be partly caused by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a rising trajectory of deaths was evident in both the United States and Canada before the pandemic hit, the Stanford-Lancet Commission said.

Profit motives, lack of regulation

The commission blames the opioid epidemic on a lack of adequate regulation and oversight coupled with profit motives of the pharmaceutical and health care industry.

Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health

Dr. Howard Koh

“To ensure safeguards are in place to curb the opioid addiction epidemic and prevent future ones involving other addictive drugs, we must end the pharmaceutical and health care industry’s undue influence on the government and its unregulated push for opioid use,” commission member Howard Koh, MD, MPH, said in the news release.

“This includes insulating the medical community from pharmaceutical company influence and closing the constantly revolving door between regulators and industry,” said Dr. Koh, with the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.

In addition to regulation and policy reform, the commission said prevention efforts that focus on treating addiction as a chronic condition are key.

The United States in particular lacks accessible, high-quality, nonstigmatizing, and integrated health and social care services for people experiencing opioid use disorder, the Commission notes.

Addiction-related services must become a permanent feature of health and social care systems in the United States and Canada, in line with established chronic disease management models that are financed and organized as a core public health commitment, the commission said.

Dr. Hurd is Ward-Coleman Chair of Translational Neuroscience and the Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai, NY

Dr. Yasmin Hurd

“Addiction is an enduring part of population health and should not be treated as a moral failing that needs punishment but as a chronic health condition that requires ongoing treatment and long-term support,” commission member Yasmin Hurd, PhD, director of the Addiction Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, said in the release.

Investing in young people to reduce the risk of addiction will also be important going forward.

“Preventing drug addiction should be part of a comprehensive public health strategy that starts in childhood and lays the foundation for long-term declines in addiction,” said commission member Chelsea Shover, PhD, with the University of California, Los Angeles.


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