The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated the already difficult efforts to combat substance abuse: New reports affirm how opioid abuse and drug overdoses are soaring, and vaping, while showing favorable declines for the first time in years, also may be creating a hard-core group of nicotine-addicted young people.
With powerful painkillers, the Wall Street Journal reported:
“Counties in states spanning the country, from Washington to Arizona and Florida, are reporting rising drug fatalities this year … This follows a likely record number of deadly overdoses in the U.S. last year, with more than 72,000 people killed, according to federal projections.”
Official federal data on opioids can lag for months, so news organizations have reached out to reporting agencies across the nation. The newspaper found this:
“The Journal, through data and public-records requests, asked the 50 largest counties by population for information on overdoses this year. Among the 30 that provided numbers, 21 of them showed overdose deaths trending up from last year. Among the other jurisdictions, several had only pre-pandemic data, and some said overdose tallies were flat or trending lower …Counties in Nevada, California, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan are among those showing increases. Authorities in other places, including traditional hot spots for opioid deaths like parts of Appalachia and New England, are also reporting more drug deaths. The spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and increased use of methamphetamines were contributing to the worsening overdose problem before the pandemic. Many counties and states say the pandemic is amplifying the threat from these drugs.”
The Washington Post earlier this year turned to a “real-time tracker of drug-related emergency calls and interviews with coroners” to report that opioid and drug “overdoses have not just increased since the pandemic began but are accelerating as it persists.”
How the pandemic worsens drug abuse
Experts told both newspapers that the coronavirus-driven isolation, loneliness, joblessness, and despair all have contributed to spiking substance abuse, which authorities had theorized early on might decline as public health stay-home orders may have disrupted established criminal pipelines for drugs.
That optimism faded fast, as abusers turned, instead, to “new suppliers and substances they are less familiar with, increasing the risk of overdose and death. Synthetic drugs and less common substances are increasingly showing up in autopsies and toxicology reports,” the Washington Post reported.
The Wall Street Journal, working with even more current data, quoted experts who have grown glum about the pandemic’s crushing progress the nation had made in combatting the abuse of powerful legal, illicit painkillers — of the prescription, synthetic, and street varieties.
“The intensifying drug crisis is particularly crushing for advocates who celebrated a slight decline in drug deaths in 2018, which marked the first time in nearly three decades the U.S. death toll hadn’t risen. In the past decade alone, overdoses have killed more than a half-million Americans. ‘I feel like all the work we did reducing overdoses just got tossed out the window,’ said Jess Tilley, co-founder of the harm-reduction group HRH413 in western Massachusetts.”
Experts quoted by both newspapers said they hope that law enforcement, public health officials, doctors, hospitals, lawmakers, and politicians would be able to not only step up the fight against Covid-19 and its harms but also return to the sustained, intense battle against opioids. Advocates say there may be small advances during the pandemic to build on, including the positive possibilities of remote or telemedicine therapy for abusers, as well efforts to increase the speed and convenience of making more public treatment medications, including buprenorphine, Suboxone, and methadone.
Researchers, by the way, have further debunked one of Big Pharma’s big “we’re good guy” dodges in the opioid mess — the notion that the drug maker Purdue’s reformulation of oxycontin, one of the painkillers central to the crisis, was beneficial in reducing the powerful painkiller’s abuse.
A panel of experts at the federal Food and Drug Administration, a decade after, has found that a harder to crush version of oxycontin “appeared to cut down abuse via snorting and injecting, compared to the original drug. But panelists overwhelmingly ruled that data from Purdue and other researchers did not show that the reformulation curbed abuse overall or led to fewer overdoses.”
CDC records a vaping decline by kids
As for vaping, opponents were muted in their response to information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that this once-trendy but health-harming practice “fell this year for the first time in three years following a spate of vaping-related deaths and injuries that alarmed public health officials,” the Washington Post reported.
While a dip in vaping might be good news, the newspaper also reported:
“While overall use among high school and middle school students declined, the percentage of youths who appeared to be addicted increased, as indicated by teens who had vaped 20 days or more in the past month. The percentage of teens using flavored e-cigarettes also increased — a concerning trend because flavors such as candy, fruit and mint are believed to be a prime vehicle for hooking teens on tobacco and e-cigarettes.”
The New York Times noted that a federal crackdown on vaping and e-cigarette use among the young had left open a “big loophole” for vendors to peddle disposable and flavored varieties. As the newspaper reported of the CDC data from its annual survey of tobacco use among the young:
“Sales of disposable flavored products have since soared among teens using e-cigarettes, the new survey confirmed — rising 1,000%. In 2020, 26.5% of regular high school e-cigarette users said they had used disposable products over the last 30 days, compared to 2.4% a year earlier. Notably, eight in 10 youth users said they were vaping ‘fruit and mint-flavored e-cigarettes,’ according to the CDC.”
Health risks in vaping and e-cigarettes
For grown-ups who may be unfamiliar with e-cigarettes and vaping, the standard as well as flavored varieties both typically also give users a high — from damaging and addictive nicotine. The vaping habit can be not only nasty and detrimental to users’ health, it can be costly, especially for young people on limited budgets. That has led to a burgeoning market in street goods — with their own injurious aspects, as the New York Times noted, describing the tempered response to reports of a vaping drop:
“This sharp decline reflects a drumbeat of effort from public health experts to illuminate the risks of e-cigarettes, combined with a real-world lesson in those risks: At least 68 people died and 2,807 had been hospitalized as of February of this year from a lung-related disease linked to vaping, according to the CDC. Many of those cases were linked to vaping cannabis products that had been mixed with a chemical called vitamin E acetate, but some patients had vaped nicotine as well, and the mysterious illness helped prompt state and federal actions aimed at curbing teen use of vaping products. Eventually the Trump administration instituted a ban on flavored e-cigarettes.”
The federal vaping crackdown — which reversed permissive policies pursued by former federal Food and Drug Administration head Scott Gottlieb — took heavy aim at Juul, a San Francisco tech company that pushed boundaries to promote and wildly popularize its e-cigarette device. The once high-flying firm has seen its fortunes plunge, now employing less than half the number of workers it once did and facing steep and continuing layoffs, as well as major retrenchment in its operation and growth plans.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs and risky and debilitating substances conveyed through defective and dangerous products.
Big Pharma and Big Tobacco have injured Americans’ health in staggering fashion with deceptive sales, marketing, and advertising of the recent menaces of opioids, tobacco, and e-cigarettes. The opioid crisis — fueled by greed and deception by Big Pharma, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, and others in health care — has been responsible for at least 400,000 Americans’ deaths since 2000, according to the Brookings Institution, which also has noted that the “U.S. Council of Economic Advisors put [its] cost at roughly $700 billion, 3.4% of GDP, in 2018” alone. Addictions destroy not only individuals and their health and lives but also those of their loved ones and communities.
As for vaping, is it any big surprise that experts, as the New York Times reported, with increasing urgency have “warned that the coronavirus — a respiratory pathogen — most likely capitalizes on the scarred lungs of smokers and vapers. Doctors and researchers are now starting to pinpoint the ways in which smoking and vaping seem to enhance the virus’s ability to spread from person to person, infiltrate the lungs and spark some of Covid-19’s worst symptoms.”
Research continues to grow, of course, that vaping serves as a gateway to tobacco cigarette use, and the big harms to smokers’ hearts, lungs, brains, and other body systems has been proven for years now. The CDC has reported that “cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.”
We’ve got a lot of work to do to battle opioid abuses and drug overdoses, as well as slashing tobacco smoking and the use of e-cigarettes and vaping.