“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times,” Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the CDC, told the Associated Press.
The new figures are a tragic expression of the United States’ urgent addiction problem. As it stands, more than 20 million Americans have a substance use disorder and 12.5 million report misusing prescriptions painkillers, behaviors linked to the aggressive marketing and overprescription of opioids in the 1980s-90s.
It doesn’t take long for prescription use to evolve into misuse. According to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey, a third of Americans who took a prescription opioid for two months or longer became addicted to or physically dependent on painkillers.
It’s a problem health officials know well. In November, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a 400-page report entitled “Facing Addiction in America,” urging everyday Americans to rethink their views on addiction. Murthy also called for doctors and policymakers to expand proven treatment programs, invest in substance use prevention and fund treatment research.
“For far too long people have thought about addiction as a character flaw or a moral failing,” Murthy told HuffPost last month. “Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”
The new numbers are grim, but policymakers seem to finally be paying attention to the crisis. Earlier this month Congress approved $1 billion in grant money to fight the opioid epidemic as part of the 21st Century Cures Act. The funds ― which will go toward prescription drug monitoring, expanding access to treatment and other addiction-related public health initiatives over two years ― will prioritize states hardest hit by opioids, Vox reports.