Data released by the United Nations find that the United States isn’t just first in the world in commissioning memoirs from Twitter users and putting cookies on sticks and frying them—we’re also first in overall opiate use.
The report, which was published by the International Narcotics Control Board, measures the global use of opioids, a class of powerful drugs that include heroin and many of the strongest prescription painkillers, like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl. It found that Americans are prescribed opioids much more frequently than other countries—six times more than France. We also consume an enormous amount of opoids, including over 99 percent of the world’s supply of hydrocodone.
Stanford psychiatrist Keith Humphreys wrote about the report for the Washington Post:
For example, Americans are prescribed about six times as many opioids per capita as are citizens of Portugal and France, even though those countries offer far easier access to health care. The largest disparity noted in the U.N. report concerns hydrocodone: Americans consume more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of this opioid.
One might think that Americans consume more opioids because as an aging population, they have objectively more aches and pains. But the U.S. population ranks only 42nd in the world in its proportion of people aged 65 or older. Countries with a much higher proportion of senior citizens than the United States, such as Australia and Italy, consume only a fraction of the prescription opioids of Americans.
The Post cites as potential influencing factors our lax drug marketing regulations and the supremely American view that “life is perfectible”—i.e. that pain is unnecessary and avoidable.
Opiates affect parts of the brain that control both pain and emotions, encouraging the production of dopamine and giving the user a rush of euphoria. This ferociously addictive combination—pain reduction and extreme mood improvement—combined with overprescription and recreational use of high-potency drugs, have led to a staggering number of of drug-related deaths. 33,091 Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2015, and an average of 91 continue to die every day, according to CNN.