Guest post by Katie Leach-Kemon, a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
A new paper released today in The Lancet provides a global picture of premature mortality and disability caused by illegal drug use around the world. These statistics are especially relevant and timely as marijuana legalization efforts gather steam in the United States and Latin America.
The study, which was based on data from the Global Burden of Disease study, found an increasing number of lives were cut short or impaired by disability from illicit drug use over two decades. As a risk factor early death and disability worldwide, drug use increased 57% between 1990 and 2010. NPR notes the report identifies that mental disorders and substance abuse are the leading causes of non-fatal illness worldwide.
In men ages 15-49 in 2010, drug use was a bigger problem than obesity/overweight and high blood sugar, as shown in the snapshot below from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) GBD data visualization tool:
In evaluating different types of drugs (amphetamines, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids), researchers found that opioids, such as painkillers and heroin, caused the most premature death and disability worldwide, accounting for 46% of total disease burden from illicit drug use in 2010. Just looking at deaths, opioid dependence contributed to an estimated 43,000 deaths worldwide in 2010, representing 55% of all deaths linked to drug use. Opioid dependence is particularly harmful in part due to the fact that the drug is highly addictive. Also, the researchers noted that people who use opioids are at a greater risk of acquiring HIV and Hepatitis B and C infection from injecting these drugs and users have a higher risk of committing suicide.
Variations in premature mortality and disability from drug use across countries, as noted in the study and seen in the screen grab below, raise many questions:
Why do the countries including the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Australia stand out as countries with some of the highest rates of disease burden from drug use? I spoke to IHME Professor Theo Vos, one of the co-authors on the study.
“There is much debate about the different factors that are driving these differences across countries,” said Vos. “According to the latest scientific studies, countries who have successfully implemented harm-reduction strategies like needle exchanges, opioid substitution treatment, and HIV antiretroviral therapy tend to have less premature death and disability from illicit drug use. Tackling drug addiction using a public health approach seems to be more effective than a punitive approach.”
A recent NPR interview sheds light on the drug policy environment in the US. Joseph Califano, founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, spoke about America’s war on drugs and its progress to date. Califano noted that two-thirds of the budget from the war on drugs goes to into interdiction (such as drug courts), but only one third goes to prevention and treatment.
You can use the GBD research and data visualization tools to track health progress over time and see which countries are making the most progress against different diseases, injuries, and risk factors such as drug addiction. You, the users of these tools, can play an essential role in explaining the context behind the data. What kinds of policies and other factors could explain differences in disease burden from drug use across countries? We encourage you to share your thoughts with us via social media on Facebook and Twitter.