Are Opioids or Economics Killing White Americans?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Opinions are all over the map about a recent study by two Princeton University researchers, who estimate that nearly half a million white Americans died in the last 15 years due to a quiet epidemic of pain, suicide, alcohol abuse and opioid overdoses.

The husband and wife research team of Angus Deaton and Anne Case were careful not to point a finger at any one cause, but speculated that financial stress caused by unemployment and stagnant incomes may be behind the rising mortality of middle-aged whites. The deaths were concentrated in baby boomers with a high school education or less.

But some were quick to blame the “opioid epidemic.”

“An opioid overdose epidemic is at the heart of this rise in white middle-age mortality,” wrote psychiatrist Richard Friedman, MD, in an editorial that appeared in the New York Times under the headline “How Doctors Helped Drive the Addiction Crisis.”

“Driving this opioid epidemic, in large part, is a disturbing change in the attitude within the medical profession about the use of these drugs to treat pain,” said Friedman. “It is physicians who, in large part, unleashed the current opioid epidemic with their promiscuous use of these drugs; we have a large responsibility to end it.”

And what should doctors do to end the epidemic?


Friedman said there was “strong evidence” that Motrin, Tylenol and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) were “safer and more effective for many painful conditions than opioid painkillers.”

The Fresno Bee took a more nuanced view of what it called “the epidemic of pain and heartbreak.”

“If ever a set of numbers cried out for deeper examination, it is this one. Human frailty may be epidemic, but surely it is also no surprise that a generation raised with the expectation of a secure future might sink into depression, hostility, illness, anguish and rage when that future fails to transpire,” The Bee said in an editorial. “Whether the solution is better jobs, cheaper schools, more mental health care or less reliance on painkillers, the distress of America’s white working class has become a public health crisis.”

“White Americans who used to be able to support a family are now struggling even in dual income households, and there's a corresponding loss in stature and self-esteem. They are turning to prescription opioids in greater numbers than minorities,” said the Baltimore Sun. “The transition to a 21st (century) economy is literally killing some people, and the United States can ill afford to ignore this disturbing development.”

Overseas news outlets also tended to blame the rising death rate on a “ruthless economy.”

“These people are dying because history has unexpectedly thrown them on the scrapheap,” said The Guardian. “White baby boomers had high expectations of the future, yet many of them have lived to discover that they will be worse off than their parents.”

“(The) findings should awaken Americans to the price we pay for pursuing economic policies that enrich the few at the expense of the many,” said David Cay Johnston in a column for Al Jezeera America. “The harsh reality is that our economy is in many ways stuck in 1998 and that for poorly educated Americans, the economy has become a living nightmare with no expectation of a brighter tomorrow. The rise in drug and alcohol poisonings as well as the rising tide of suicides should not surprise. But these trends should disturb.”

What do you think? Is the economy to blame for the increasing number of deaths? Or is it opioids?