The United States is in the grip of an opioid epidemic, which is affecting millions of Americans and claiming thousands of lives. Many trace their opioid dependence back to their doctor’s office, the drugs prescribed for pain after an injury, surgery, or dental procedure. Were these painkillers over prescribed? Did drug manufacturers exaggerate opioids’ effectiveness while deliberately underplaying their danger? Did drug distributors and retailers take necessary steps to ensure that pills weren’t falling in to the wrong hands? In this Q&A, Stanford Law Professors Michelle Mello, an expert in health law, and Nora Freeman Engstrom, an expert in tort law and complex litigation, explain the scope of the opioid problem and discuss the latest cases and legal challenges.
Just how big of a problem is the opioid crisis in the United States? Can you describe the problem’s scope and seriousness?
Engstrom: The opioid problem is monstrous. Some 2.4 million Americans have an opioid use disorder, and the epidemic has already claimed 300,000 American lives, including 42,000 in 2016 alone. Worse, if the problem isn’t addressed, death tolls will rise: opioids are on track to claim the lives of another half-million Americans within the next decade. That’s like wiping out the entire city of Atlanta. The economic cost is also astronomical. The Council of Economic Advisors has estimated that, in 2015, “the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504.0 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP.”
Mello: If there’s one picture that brings home the shocking toll, it’s this one, showing trends in U.S. deaths based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly all of the “Poisoning” deaths shown here are opioid related. In terms of what’s killing Americans, opioids dwarf car crashes and guns.