American Life Expectancy Drops Again

The failing drug war is largely to blame.



The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that for the third consecutive year, average life expectancy has declined: After peaking at 78.9 years in 2014, it has dropping to 78.6 years in 2017. This follows decades of increases.

While a fiercer than usual outbreak of influenza contributed to the decline last year, the main causes are rising suicides rates and the increasing number of deaths from drug overdoses associated with opioids.

Overdose deaths in 2017 rose to 70,237, up from 63,632 the year before. But overdose deaths associated with legal opioids did not significantly change from 2016. The increase came almost entirely from street drugs.

And why was there a rise in the use of black market fentanyl and heroin? The biggest reason is most likely the drug war.

In 2010, the manufacturers of legal opioids agreed to reformulate their products so that they could no longer be easily crushed and inhaled. A 2012 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that this reformulation was the primary reason that many painkiller addicts switched to heroin. "The most unexpected, and probably detrimental, effect of the abuse-deterrent formulation was that it contributed to a huge surge in the use of heroin, which is like OxyContin in that it also is inhaled or injected," said the study's principal investigator.

A fascinating 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, "How the Reformulation of OxyContin Ignited the Heroin Epidemic," finds that the rise in the use of heroin began the very month after legal opioids were reformulated. From the abstract:

We attribute the recent quadrupling of heroin death rates to the August, 2010 reformulation of an oft-abused prescription opioid, OxyContin. The new abuse-deterrent formulation led many consumers to substitute to an inexpensive alternative, heroin. Using structural break techniques and variation in substitution risk, we find that opioid consumption stops rising in August, 2010, heroin deaths begin climbing the following month, and growth in heroin deaths was greater in areas with greater pre-reformulation access to heroin and opioids. The reformulation did not generate a reduction in combined heroin and opioid mortality—each prevented opioid death was replaced with a heroin death.

Now cheaper and more deadly black market fentanyl is making the situation worse. As my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum writes, we can all "thank drug warriors for the escalating death toll from superpotent synthetic opioids." And for a fall in average life expectancy too.

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  1. What’s the life expectancy for people who don’t do drugs and don’t commit suicide?

    Asking for a friend.

    1. I don’t really understand why there isn’t a separate life expectancy due to natural causes or something as well. Suicide and drug overdose wouldn’t factor into that and it would be more useful for someone like myself.

      1. Wondering the same thing. What’s the point of including risks that are avoidable (smoking, drugs, etc.) simply by not engaging in them?

        1. Is driving avoidable?

          1. Not practically for most people, of course, but car accidents aren’t natural causes.

          2. Not sure how driving risks are related to disease control, but considering this is a government agency, some mission creep is to be expected.

        2. What’s the point of including risks that are avoidable (smoking, drugs, etc.) simply by not engaging in them?

          And risk the portion of the CDSs’ budget that goes towards fighting those things?? That’s crazy talk.

          1. You do realize that the actual data tables, available from the CDC, do include these kinds of breakdowns?

      2. Suicide and drug overdose rates aren’t useful for someone like yourself?

        What, aren’t you married? Never cohabitated with a woman at all?

        If you get married, it’ll factor into the equation eventually. It’ll factor alright.

        1. Is that really you, Ken?

          You typically contribute to the conversation. This post is an exception.

          1. You typically contribute to the conversation. This post is an exception.

            By using this logic I’ve determined that all my posts are exceptional.

          2. For goodness’ sake, get a sense of humor.

        2. Ken, have you tried actually taking out the trash for once?

      3. It’s easy to understand.

        Socialists believe that all factors are an indictment of the state, and that including them helps make the case for nationalized health care.

      4. Suicide might be considered a consequence of mental illness. Not completely “avoidable”.

        1. Suicide might be considered a consequence of mental illness. Not completely “avoidable”.
          But pandered to and encouraged by government, rather that directed to treatment..

    2. I’m thinking there should an asterisk on the official number and that there should another number corrected to remove suicides.

      I don’t think that suicides really reflect on life expectancy. To me, life expectancy is a natural number that refects how a human body works and how technology is helping.

      1. You’d have to pull out more then suicides.

      2. Suicides increase with availability of methods of suicide (guns, drugs etc.) as well as drugs. However, many mental health conditions are genetic and can be treated medically.

    3. Might also be interesting to break out death by natural causes and death by crime. Of course the gun grabbers would latch on to the crime rate, but it would be interesting to see the natural causes death rate.

      Then there’s the infant mortality death rate, which I understand is terrible for the US because all births are noted as live or stillborn at the moment of delivery, not several days later, and because we try to save more premature births than other countries. That would be interesting too.

      1. Do you know if still born babies are counted as a death?

        1. No idea. Interesting stat. Must be maintained someplace in some database.

        2. My understanding is that infant mortality is counted as stillborn if before or during delivery, neonatal up to one month or post neonatal after that. It would depend on the data you are looking at as to if they are lumped together or not.

  2. The failing drug war is largely to blame.

    Are you sure it isn’t the fault of Romaine lettuce?

    1. If you smoke romaine lettuce does the E Coli die?

      1. Don’t put lettuce in your smoker. It gets all wilty.

        1. I think he is rolling it up like a joint. Lettuce actually is slightly psychedelic, but you are gonna have to smoke a lot of it.

          1. Challenge accepted.

    2. No one ever committed suicide before Nov. 2016. Therefore, you know the cause.

      1. Except Lincoln, by chasing those vampire zombies which he knew wad as sure a death as fixing or repairing daily.

  3. cute anyone thinks there *is* life expectancy.

      1. nobody “expects” to live any length of time. all humanity is day-to-day.

        1. Yes, as a matter of pure semantics the phrase “life expectancy” is completely retarded, though it would make sense if we were consumer electronics.

          Really, it would have to be “average lifespan” or something, but then again we all know what is meant by “life expectancy”.

          Since you mention it, though, I’m interested in what imbecile first coined the term, so that his memory and legacy can be forever shat upon for idiocy.

      2. Death and Tax expectancy. Everything else is the reciprocal expectancy.

  4. Not surprising. The current occupier of the White House has been promoting policies that will significantly decrease quality of life for people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community. Of course, if this decrease in life expectancy were limited to, say, the backwater-swilling clingers who occupy America’s backwoods, it would be a welcome development for progress, reason, science, and diversity.

    1. Should name yourself “NPC Arthur M. Kirkland”

    2. I could be wrong about this, but I think the drop in life expectancy (at least in past years) was limited to white, non-college educated males somewhere in the 18-34 age range.

      1. L: You are right. OTOH, the life expectancies for Hispanics and blacks continues to rise.

  5. Rev. spoof?

    1. Oops, meant to be a reply to the pastor above.

    2. Yeah, but no so much a spoof as an even more idiotic commenter.

  6. Socialism has long been shown to correlate to increased depression and suicide.

    1. ? are you arguing that we’ve gotten more socialist under President Trump?

      1. We haven’t gotten more capitalistic, so what does that leave us?

        Fascistic? Sure. Like where the state directs the results of production? Yeah. Which party believes most in that?

        1. I dunno.
          Removal of a lot of government regulations sure seems more capitalistic, as does lowering taxes on businesses.

  7. We should adopt the Portugal model for dealing with drug use.

    I am not sure that it would decrease the overdose rate in the short term. The ability to manufacture and distribute fentanyl and analogues is a technological breakthrough for the suppliers.

    1. I think most junkies would prefer heroin or morphine. As I understand it, they are more euphoric and longer lasting. So if you make that stuff legally available and affordable, fentanyl shouldn’t be as much of an issue.

  8. So, we Americans have long been told that if we are well-behaved, don’t smoke, exercise, and go to the doctor, we can expect to live to be 100. Smoking has certainly dropped, but people live longer in France, Japan, and Greece, where they smoke a lot more too. We go to the doctor, and consume more prescriptions probably than any other country, so that doesn’t seem to help. Exercise? I will get some once I finally get up off my lazy ass.

    1. I kind of start to think that no one really knows much about this at all. Especially when it comes to nutrition.

      1. Ding ding ding

    2. Whenever the doctor tells me to exercise more, I tell ’em that Captain America is my fitness role model. Stay scrawny and week and hope for a miracle drug.

  9. An overall average can be very misleading especially when the two main causes are behaviors that the typical person in the US does not engage in. Would seriously like a break-down of life expectancy by subgroups. It could easily be that the life expectancy for some is rising but not enough to offset the change in life expectancy for other subgroups which is falling at a much higher rate.

    1. ^This^ And we know that the group whose life expectancy has decreased the most is poor whites-both younger and middle aged. As whites make up about 70% of the US population, this has a significant negative effect.

  10. As long as it’s just white folks, and particularly white males, I’m good with it.

    1. As long as they’re poor, who cares?

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