Is there a ‘fentanyl epidemic’ occurring?

Exaggeration appears to be the watchword in opioid ‘crisis’

One thing I’ve noticed as certain disasters are described to us every day is the lack of context. By that, I mean one appalling event could pale next to another; but the second event is never described, so nobody knows and the publicized tragedy is the one in our memories.

What’s more, while some publicized tragedies have become like old friends, we don’t even pay attention to “old” tragedies because the story rarely changes and perhaps isn’t as interesting as it once was.

Let’s look at tobacco, for example. Please note that I’m using American numbers because more research has been done south of the border. It’s fact that cigarette smoking causes diseases that can and do lead to death. Even the tobacco companies have admitted to that after years of denials.

The Centres for Disease Control state, “More than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking. For every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis.”

The CDC also stated that, “Worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly six million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030. 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.”

Now let’s look at alcohol. In my opinion booze is the worst drug out there. It was obvious during the many years I worked as a court reporter, liquor caused an unbelievably large amount of misery and suffering. At a previous newspaper I edited, my court reporter came back from one day covering provincial court and had 13 stories to write, and all of them involved alcohol. Typically, a reporter is expected to write 10 stories a week.

In 2013, the CDC stated alcohol was involved in, or caused, the deaths of over 29,000 Americans; this includes things like cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol poisoning. It doesn’t include crimes like impaired driving, which is an entirely separate issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated that in 2013 drunk driving caused 10,076 deaths in the United States.

We’re currently living through the “fentanyl scourge,” the impression that vast numbers of people are dying every day from opioid (heroin) related substances; people are just dropping to the ground on street corners from the scourge fentanyl. Health Canada reported as recently as April, 2018 that, “in 2016, there were 2,861 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada.” I would assume “apparent” means suspected but not proven of being opioid-caused, which also means possibly not caused by opioids either. So the number is likely less that 2,861, and probably a lot less. But supplying more accurate numbers doesn’t make for such a dramatic story.

Any rational person that looks at the huge difference between, for example, tobacco deaths as compared to all “apparent” opioid deaths, could not possibly in good conscience call something like fentanyl an “epidemic.”

Despite this, politicians, eager to get their faces in front of a TV camera and distract people away from, for example, incompetent leadership, are warning of the fentanyl scourge, the opioid crisis, more money needed for opioid treatment centres and programs and increased funding so paramedics can carry anti-fentanyl medication.

It seems to me the money would be better spent…far better spent…on tobacco education programs.

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.

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