Two Princeton economists startled Americans recently when they discovered that between 1999 and 2013, white, middle-aged, high-school-educated men in the United States died at an increasing rate from prescription and illegal drug overdose, alcohol and liver-related disease and suicide[1]. Fortunately there is the impression that government and media are paying attention to this national epidemic[2]. Earlier this month, President Obama announced his plans to invest more than $1.1 billion over the next two years to expand access to treatment for abuse of heroin and other drugs, avail the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to first responders, and support targeted enforcement activities[3]. Also Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), revising punitive drug policies, promoting best medical practices and strengthening data sharing among states’ prescription drug monitoring programs[4].

The Princeton study also forces us to recognize that drug abuse is not, as previously thought, a malady afflicting only poor, minority, inner-city communities, but rather is an across-the-country phenomenon, affecting in particular rural white adults. Interestingly, as the mortality trend demonstrates, the under-treatment of pain in minorities has inadvertently ‘protected’ them from overdose, reducing a decades-long death-rate gap between whites and non-whites. But will increased access to care for those already harmed by addiction; addressing the enduring shortfalls in prescriber education; and research for alternative abuse-deterrent medications actually reverse this deadly epidemic?

I think not.

Turns out the overdose epidemic is a social, not just a medical, problem.

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