What is actually killing Americans and how to solve it

President Biden recently demanded that lawmakers get their act together, deal with gun violence, stop ‘[failing the American people]’ and keep so many Americans from dying. Well, I have news for you, our government is failing us, Americans are dying, but it isn’t gun violence that is the leading cause, it’s opioids.

Our leaders are failing us because guns are easier to talk about, politically more enticing, and frankly are probably never going to get solved in the United States, so no politician will ever really need to step up and commit. But opioids requires recognizing hard truths; drug addicts aren’t that sympathetic to voters, and the stigma that comes with it isn’t going anytime soon. But whether you don’t care because the opioid crisis hasn’t touched you personally yet (it will soon, I promise) or because you don’t really care about drug addicts dying (your bank account and our economy does), we need to act — and act in ways that will actually solve this crisis to avoid losing an entire generation of Americans.

I know everyone is almost as sick of hearing about the opioid crisis as they are of hearing about COVID, but here are the hard facts. Illegal fentanyl, a significant amount of it coming from China and through our Southern border, is now the leading cause of death in 18-45 year-olds in the United States, and it is only going to get worse. Guns don’t come near to opioids in terms of the numbers of dead Americans — and unlike guns, opioid deaths are only increasing. In 2020, 19,384 Americans died of guns (excluding suicides); while this number is higher than the past couple of years, there were similar numbers of in the 1990s, and one could easily argue that the numbers are pretty stead over time: The gun homicide rate was actually higher in the 1970s and 1990s. However, deaths by drug overdoses, have more than doubled since 2015 and are increasing exponentially, with over 100,000 Americans dying in the past 12 months — and this is all while we have been spending billions of dollars fighting the “opioid epidemic.”

Between the federal government shelling out to solve it, the cost to the economy, the lost productivity, healthcare costs and criminal justice activities, the opioid crisis cost the U.S. economy $631 billion from 2015-2018. Given that even more Americans are using and dying, we can easily say that since the ‘fight’ began, the opioid crisis has cost the United States over $1.2 trillion. And guess what? We are losing, big time.

The usual therapies don’t work. We are seeing no change, just more death. And if you don’t care about the people dying of opioids and illegal fentanyl, then care about the money — because it’s your tax dollars and your economy.

So, what do we do? We fix it, and here’s how.

We have a successful model: COVID. Instead of waiting years, with all the red-tape and cost, to try to create a drug and if/when that fails, try another and wait another 10 years, we should take $30 billion and try out 150 drugs all at the same time. As Professor Andrew Lo’s research shows, this method has both an excellent return-on-investment for investors and solves the issue of time — we could have a cure for the opioid crisis in a matter of months, just like had vaccines for COVID-19.

So why haven’t we done it? The hardest part is done. We have $32 billion just sitting there, in fact — as settlement money from the pharmaceutical companies charged with creating with creating this crisis in the first place. But instead of pooling together like we did with COVID, we are doing the same old useless political hackery of parceling it out to individual states and even counties, with politicians shelling it out in the same old, clearly useless ways.

The United States — and the world for that matter, but really the United States — mobilized behind finding a vaccine for COVID because we knew how many deaths would be coming our way. The only way we are going to solve an exponentially growing crisis that spans all socioeconomic classes is to come together again. We have the money, we just don’t have the will. But before we know it, if we don’t act, we will have lost an entire generation of Americans.

Liberty Vittert, PhD, is a professor of the practice of data science at the Olin Business School at the Washington University in St. Louis. She is also the feature editor of the Harvard Data Science Review and co-host of the Harvard Data Science Review podcast. She is an on-air statistician for “On Balance” on NewsNation. Follow her on Twitter @libertyvittert

Tags Biden biomedical research biopharmaceutical COVID-19 drug development economic costs of drug addiction fentanyl overdoses gun deaths Health care costs Opioid abuse epidemic opioid death toll Opioid epidemic opioid settlement Opioids public health crisis

More Healthcare News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video