The opioid epidemic caused half a million deaths between 1999 and 2019. But far from abating, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused it to increase dramatically, with more people have died from opioids in the past year than in any previous year. However, the contours of the crisis have changed.
The opioid epidemic has traditionally been thought of as affecting mostly white Americans and mostly in rural areas. This was partly intentional, as pharmaceutical companies targeted these areas to avoid blinding law enforcement agencies. Another reason why white Americans were more likely to be addicted to opioids was because blacks were much less likely to take opioids for pain control. even when medically indicated in emergency conditions. However, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the reason the opioid epidemic is now growing at an alarming rate is because of its rapid infiltration into black communities.
New research shows more black Americans are dying of overdoses
A recently published report by the CDC provides a clear picture of how the opioid epidemic is increasingly taking people of color into its wake. In 2020, opioid overdoses increased by 30% compared to 2019, leading to 91,799 deaths. However, the increase was not observed uniformly. The death rate among black Americans increased by 44%, the largest increase among all racial and ethnic groups, and twice that for white Americans.
Black youth between the ages of 15 and 24 saw an 86% increase in opioid death rates. In fact, according to my analysis of the CDC WONDER database, in 2020 black Americans had a higher opioid death rate than white Americans for the first time in the entire two-decade history of the opioid crisis.
In 2020, for the first time throughout the opioid epidemic, the death rate from opioid overdoses was greater for black Americans than white Americans, largely due to the rise of illegal fentanyl.
Opioid deaths add to the systemic burden on black communities
One of the black victims of opioid addiction was George Floyd. “Our story, it’s a classic story of how many people are addicted to opioids,” Courteney Ross, Floyd’s girlfriend, TESTIFIES during the trial in Minneapolis. “We both struggled with chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back.” In fact, opioids may well have killed George Floyd before his May 2020 murder; he was hospitalized for an opioid overdose in March of that year.
At a time when Black communities are suffering disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality, they are also being hit doubly by the ongoing opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic is building on existing disparities in the United States: CDC study shows that areas with the greatest income inequality had twice the rate of opioid-related deaths among black Americans compared to areas with the least income inequality .
What is causing this increase in opioid deaths?
Why has opioid misuse increased among black Americans during the pandemic? A major culprit is the rise of fentanyl, an opioid far more lethal than others, which has taken America by storm through rampant exports. Research published by my team IN Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the pandemic was accompanied by a decline in prescriptions for opioids, with later work suggesting that this occurred only for new users and not for those previously prescribed opioids.
This reduction occurred due to the closing of clinics and pharmacies, however, stopping prescription opioids suddenly can be dangerous. or recent study showed that patients who are suddenly stopped from opioids have a higher risk of suicide, as it may lead them to turn to illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl.
Unequal access to addiction treatment adds to the problem
A major reason for the growing racial divide in opioids is based on who actually has access to substance use treatment. While only 14% of those who died from opioids received substance abuse treatment overall, among black Americans the rate was 8%, the lowest of all groups. Opioid use disorder treatment services were hit hard by the pandemic, leading to the immediate closure of services that were serving as a lifeline for many users.
Policy changes and better access to pain treatments can turn the tide
Simply making substance use and mental health resources available is unlikely to move the needle on its own. Opioid death rates among black Americans were highest in areas with the greatest availability of addiction treatment and mental health centers. What is really needed is a broad public health campaign and outreach to black communities, highlighting the dangers of opioid misuse, providing community-based resources for harm reduction and addiction treatment, and reducing the stigma that related to opioid misuse and treatment seeking.
The war on drugs was detected by one of its creators as racist in nature. The last thing we need is for us to re-criminalize the use and abuse of these drugs, which could put already vulnerable black communities – disproportionately affected by opioids and excessive law enforcement – in double jeopardy. Clearing the streets of fentanyl through tighter control is an important part of the National Drug Control Strategy released at the beginning of the year by the Biden administration, but care must also be taken to ensure that black Americans experiencing pain or prescribed chronic opioids are not left to suffer.
Evidence-based interdisciplinary pain treatments can provide significant relief for people with chronic pain, and an important goal should be to ensure that all patients, especially those who already suffer disproportionately, have access to these therapies. However to ensure it Blacks are both able to get adequate pain reliefand also not to suffer disproportionately from the opioid epidemic, we must ensure that barriers to treatment are eliminated once and for all.