According to a new report by the National Safety Council, the U.S. has reached a new, alarming point in the opioid epidemic. For the first time in history, the leading cause of preventable deaths in the country is no longer motor vehicle wrecks.
Opioid overdose has overtaken traffic crashes, with Americans having a statistical 1 in 96 chance of dying from an overdose of heroin, OxyContin, Vicodin, fentanyl or another opioid. Approximately 72,000 Americans died of opioid overdose in 2017. By comparison, the statistical probability of an American dying in a traffic collision is 1 in 103.
"The nation's opioid crisis is fueling the Council's grim probabilities, and that crisis is worsening with an influx of illicit fentanyl," said the Council in a statement. Among the drugs causing these deaths, fentanyl is most often responsible, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in December.
Even more tragic, opioid overdose deaths are concentrated earlier in life than other forms of accidental death. "It is impacting our workforce, it is impacting our fathers and mothers who are still raising their children," said the Council.
Other forms of preventable deaths are still on the rise
Unfortunately, the fact that opioid overdose has risen to the top of the list of preventable deaths is not because other items on the list have decreased. Overall, Americans' lifetime odds of dying from an unintentional, preventable injury have actually risen in the last 15 years, according to the National Safety Council.
For example, the Governors Highway Safety Association says that pedestrian deaths are currently at a 25-year high, with an average of 13 people dying in such accidents every day in the U.S.
Suit accuses OxyContin maker of deception about risks
There is some reason to believe the companies who manufacture legal opioids have some responsibility for the crisis. Recently, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, along with its executives and some members of the family that owns the company. The lawsuit accuses them of being aware of the dangers and addictiveness of the drug but misleading prescribers about those issues. It also says they encouraged prescribers to keep patients on the drug for longer than they might otherwise have done.
"The launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition," boasted one executive and family member when the drug was launched, according to the lawsuit.
Last year, Perdue ended the marketing of OxyContin to doctors.
The Massachusetts suit is separate from some 1,500 other lawsuits filed by states and cities, which are being overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland.