Stunning Data on the Opioid Epidemic

The following is an excerpt from the essay, Our Miserable 21st Century by Nicholas N. Eberstadt/Feb. 15, 2007 in Commentary.

I recommend reading the entire article here.

I found the data in this essay stunning. I think you will too.

The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. The terrifying novelty of this particular drug epidemic, of course, is that it has gone (so to speak) “mainstream” this time, effecting breakout from disadvantaged minority communities to Main Street White America. By 2013, according to a 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans died from drug overdoses (largely but not wholly opioid abuse) than from either traffic fatalities or guns. The dimensions of the opioid epidemic in the real America are still not fully appreciated within the bubble, where drug use tends to be more carefully limited and recreational. In Dreamland, his harrowing and magisterial account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes in passing that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.

In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis. [Emphasis added]

We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned. [Emphasis added]

But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program. Here is how it works (we are with Quinones in Portsmouth, Ohio):

[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. Among those who receive Medicaid cards are people on state welfare or on a federal disability program known as SSI. . . . If you could get a prescription from a willing doctor—and Portsmouth had plenty of them—Medicaid health-insurance cards paid for that prescription every month. For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street.

In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning….

6 thoughts on “Stunning Data on the Opioid Epidemic

  1. Thanks for posting this, Tom. I used your link and read the entire piece. Very compelling stuff. Clearly politicians from both parties and the national news media missed one of the biggest stories of the decade. The opioid epidemic is just part of that story. In a huge swarth of this country there are people living in misery and desperation. Many are leading lives without jobs or meaning. They feel forgotten because they have been. It’s not the entire reason Trump was elected, but it is a big part of it. Nobody on a leadership level has really taken this problem on. It is certainly understandable why so many of these forgotten folks voted for Trump. Desperation demands a quick fix. Opioids fill the bill for a while and then make the underlying problems ten times worse. Same with Trump. But shame on the rest of us for not focussing on this crisis and depending a solution that does work.


  2. Thanks for your insight Bruce. I agree. I just finished reading the entire essay again. Earlier today I listened to Ezra Klein’s recent podcast with Yuval Harari author of “Sapiens” and his new book, “Homo Deus,” Add that together with Tom Friedman’s new book, “Thanks for Being Late” and we get a dire picture for the people caught in the economic and social downward spiral. And, I suspect, more and more millions will be added to that group as we go forward. A massive re-imagining of “The American Dream” is urgently needed. Add climate change to the mix and the need for an even more dramatic re-imagining of how we live on our planet is needed. I don’t see the brainpower for that in Washington. The vision has to emerge from the people.


  3. Very interesting analyses… and… “sad”…
    Is all this (the continuum over years) the look and sound of the human species imploding?
    “Greed” at so many levels… and fear…
    In loving (I still want to express that) spirit, Eleanor


  4. While I agree that the “legal” opioids are a huge problem, I don’t like blaming Medicaid that serves the old, young and the poor with health care because I don’t think the Republicans need any more excuses to get rid of the program.  Instead, I believe we should reign in the doctors and big pharma on this issue as well as allow cannabis to be used in its’ place.  Of course with Sessions as our new US AG, that’s not going to happen.  Won’t happen as long as money rules our government either because they like us all sedated and easily manipulated, dumbed down, etc. so they can gain and retain power.   Judy

    From: Tom’s Thoughts To: Sent: Monday, February 27, 2017 1:47 PM Subject: [New post] Stunning Data on the Opioid Epidemic #yiv8645785461 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8645785461 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8645785461 a.yiv8645785461primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8645785461 a.yiv8645785461primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8645785461 a.yiv8645785461primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8645785461 a.yiv8645785461primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8645785461 | Tom Heuerman posted: “The following is an excerpt from the essay, Our Miserable 21st Century by Nicholas N. Eberstadt/Feb. 15, 2007 in Commentary.I recommend reading the entire article here.I found the data in this essay stunning. I think you will too.The opioid epid” | |


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