In 1991, the band Nirvana released the classic album Nevermind and Kurt Cobain was the face of the grunge scene that spread from Seattle across the United States. If you’re old enough, remember back: it was a gritty time that seemed defined by self-destructive heroin use. A new study on early view at the journal Addiction shows that, at least in terms of opioid-related deaths, 1991 was nothing compared to today. Between 1991 and 2010, opioid-related deaths increased 242 percent. Today, deaths related to opioid use account for 1 out of every 8 deaths of people 25-34 years old.
The report, which uses coroner data from Ontario, Canada, blames the rise not on heroin itself, but on prescription opioid pain medications. The medical use of prescription painkillers is up; the recreational use of these same prescription painkillers is up; and deaths due to opioid use are up alongside use–from 127 deaths per year in 1992 to 550 deaths per year in 2010.
Interestingly, the study didn’t leave its description of the impact of opioids at the level of deaths alone. Inside this number is a statistic called years of life lost. If average life expectancy is 80 years and a person dies of an overdose at age 75, that person would have lost 5 years of life. If a person dies in the same way at age 30, that person would have lost 50 years of life. Because opioids tended to kill younger people (median age 42), not only is the overall number of deaths high, but the years of life lost to drugs is staggering.
Overall, the study found that opioid drug deaths cost the people of Ontario, Canada 21,927 years of life in 2010. These years lost were greater than the years of life lost to alcohol use (18,465 years of life lost). In fact, the years of life lost to opioids were greater than those lost to pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, or influenza.
The authors point out that if you extrapolate the data to the population of the United States, “where rates of opioid use, misuse and death are comparable to those in Canada,” the drugs would result in more than half a million years of life lost per year.
These drugs kill young people, taking not only lives but, tragically, many years of life with each death. The study writes, “The finding that one in eight deaths among young adults were attributable to opioids underlines the urgent need for a change in perception regarding the safety of these medications.”
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.