In last week's State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned prescription drug abuse as an issue where he saw opportunity for bipartisan compromise. Notably, he mentioned this in the first three minutes of the speech. And not coincidentally, he mentioned it in the same breath as another, related issue that will be a necessary component of prescription drug abuse mitigation: criminal justice reform.
Governor Chris Christie has made prescription drug abuse a centerpiece of his stump speech. He regularly shares a personal experience of losing a close friend from law school to an overdose. Just last week, Christie made headlines by shutting down a New Jersey prison in order to convert it to a drug addiction treatment facility. "The victims of addiction deserve treatment..." he said.
In last night's Democratic primary debate, Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders both touched on the subject. After noting that she hears of horrible stories wherever she goes on the campaign trail and after advocating for first responders to carry and be authorized to use Narcan, she closed her comments along the same lines as Governor Christie: "We have to move away from treating the use of drugs as a crime and instead, move it to where it belongs, as a health issue. And we need to divert more people from the criminal justice system into drug courts, into treatment, and recovery." Senator Sanders added, after placing at least some of the blame at the feet of the pharmaceutical companies, that "we need a revolution in this country in terms of mental health treatment."
This is clearly going to be a 2016 presidential campaign issue. Beyond the mere fact that crises often make for strange bedfellows (Clinton and Christie offering nearly interchangeable quotes?!?!), why are we hearing more about prescription drug abuse from candidates now than ever before?
First, New Hampshire. Everyone knows the Granite State figures prominently as the first primary - on February 9 - in both parties' nomination process (Iowa - on February 1 - is a caucus, not a primary). What many may fail to recognize is that New Hampshire's citizens have been hit especially hard by the opioid/heroin epidemic over the last several years. A quarter of New Hampshire voters believe prescription drug and heroin abuse is the single most important issue of the 2016 election, marking the first time in eight years a plurality of voters have ranked any issue more important than jobs and the economy. If you're going to win the New Hampshire primary - from either party - you better be prepared to address prescription drug misuse and abuse.
Second, it's not an exaggeration to say that we're losing a material portion of entire generation of Americans to this epidemic. First, we saw the findings of a recent study from the National Academy of Sciences indicating that the death rate among white, middle-aged Americans has grown over the last two decades while the death rate among almost all other groups has declined. Now, the New York Times has analyzed nearly 60 million death certificates collected by the CDC and found that the death rate among young, white adults has risen to levels not seen since the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This generation will be the first since the Vietnam War to experience higher death rates in early adulthood than the generation that preceded it. The figures indicate that the 2014 death rate from prescription drug and heroin overdose among 25 to 34 year olds was five times its level in 1999.
We have presidential candidates talking about this issue because it is the preeminent public health issue of our time. If there's any comfort for us at all, it's that both parties appear to be taking it seriously. If there's to be a concern, it's that whoever wins will need to make difficult decisions and real progress. We're losing a generation of Americans.
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