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America's Opioid Epidemic

Breaking down cause and effect of the deadly crisis

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3wavesoftheriseinopioidoverdosedeaths mediumCenters for Disease Control and Prevention

Three Waves of Opioid Overdose Deaths



CIVICS:  In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the opioid crisis was a national emergency. [Department of Health and Human Services]


By declaring a public health emergency, the federal government is required to establish a plan to help American citizens impacted by the crisis to improve their conditions.


SOCIAL: The 1890s in America experienced a similar opioid epidemic. How can we ensure lessons are learned from history? 


Highly addictive

The research is clear: opioids are highly addictive - they "hijack the brain's reward pathway and impair decision-making." [Nature]



Drug companies and doctors

When the drug was first introduced in the 1990s into the medical system, doctors often ensured patients the meds were not addictive. The highly addictive nature was unknown at the time. [Department of Health and Human Services]


Today, major pharmaceutical companies are the target of blame for aggressive, corrupt, and sometimes false marketing and influence over doctors, patients, and even the World Health Organization. [Nature], [The Guardian]



The "three waves"

Initially, the opioid crisis became evident because patients were abusing or becoming addicted to their prescriptions. 


In 2010, the next wave of opioid-related deaths began with patients turning to heroin. 


The third wave of deaths was connected to synthetic opioids, either legally prescribed (Tramadol and Fentanyl) or illegally-created.


[Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]


Side Effects

According to the CDC, opioids have the following side effects:

  • Addiction, abuse, overdose

  • Physical dependence

  • Increased sensitivity to pain

  • Depression

  • Constipation

  • Nausea, vomiting, dry mouth

  • Sleepiness and dizziness

  • Confusion

  • Itching and sweating


The opioid epidemic has become so severe that it passed gun violence, car accidents and HIV on the list of leading causes of death for Americans under 55. [The New York Times]


From 1999 to 2017, about 400,000 deaths have been connected to opioid use. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]


More than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017 alone.  [The New York Times]



Life disrupted

Rise in:


As of October 2019, there were 2,900 pending court cases that involved opioids. [Reuters]


  • 2019: Opioid epidemic goes global, with opioid-related deaths on the rise in Australia, China, and across Europe. [The Associated Press]

  • Feb 2020: More than 20 states rejected an $18 billion settlement from drug companies due to the details of the payment (paid out over too long of a time). [Business Insider]

  • Oct. 2020: The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, will plead guilty to three federal criminal charges related to helping "touch off" the opioid epidemic. [Associated Press]

  • See the HHS and Trump administration's 5-step plan to fight the crisis.


  • How many pain pills were shipped in the last nine years? The Washington Post investigated.

  • Major corporations, like Walmart, are stepping in. Read more.

  • Opinion: Mental health care "may be the key" to stopping the crisis. 

  • Should kids as young as 6 be trained on how to reverse an opioid overdose? Read to form an opinion.

  • Read more on how prisons and jails "perpetuate the opioid epidemic" from Vox.

  • Poverty and America: There is a drug that could assist people in combating addiction. However, not everyone can afford it. [Vox]

Key Vocabulary