The Year in Review: 2019
The year began with a glimmer of hope for some progress combating the opioid epidemic, arguably our nation’s worst public health crisis. Thousands of lawsuits against the opioid industry were set to go to court with potentially large financial settlements ultimately being used to expand drug programs. There were also a number of innovative initiatives, launched by cities and states that were starting to reduce overdose deaths.
But as 2019 came to a close, the overall picture remains grim: Overdose fatalities nationally are expected to reach a near-record level, and settlement talks for the massive opioid litigation have stalled. This year has also seen an outbreak of mysterious vaping-related illnesses, which appear to be linked to marijuana use in illicit e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. In addition, the vaping crisis brought to light widespread teen nicotine use spurred by easier access to these products and their relentless promotion by the intertwined tobacco and vaping industries.
Despite these setbacks, I remain cautiously optimistic our efforts to address these issues—through the Center’s social media platforms, new podcasts and videos, publications and public outreach—will find broader support, and resonate with politicians and policymakers.
A Wall Street Journal editorial in December, for example, called for a pause in marijuana legalization in order to better ascertain the medical and social risks associated with increased use of the drug. This echoes our proposal, published in an Op-Ed in The Hill, for a two-year moratorium on further legalization—a stance that provoked a strong response from both sides of the marijuana debate.
It was also encouraging that, even as pot legalization seemed unstoppable, New York and New Jersey backed away from such legislation. At the same time, a growing number of communities in states with legal weed have protected their neighborhoods by exercising their right to opt out of sanctioning commercial pot shops. This came on the heels of numerous studies highlighting the dangers of increased marijuana use, especially for young people, and the vaping illness epidemic that has so far killed 54 and hospitalized more than 2,500.
Less encouraging is the Government response to the vaping crisis. Although some cities and states have imposed strict regulations on the flavored e-cigarettes that are so popular with teenagers, the Trump administration caved to industry demands and is likely to modify an initial sweeping countywide ban—leaving the measure weakened as more individuals become sick and die. We continue to press for strong leadership to contain e-cigarette use and teen vaping.
Leadership has likewise been lacking when it comes to opioids. With nearly 70,000 Americans expected to die in 2019 from drug overdose—mostly opioid-related—it is troubling that the crisis has received little attention from the Democratic presidential candidates—not to mention President Trump himself. The Rosenthal Center believes the opioid epidemic must be a policy priority; our proposal for $100 billion in government funding over the next decade is a suitable starting point if we hope to reduce overdose deaths and bolster addiction-treatment services.
Adequate support is more critical than ever because we cannot wait for a possible windfall from the opioid litigation. A substantial settlement, with ironclad guarantees the money will be directed exclusively to addiction services, would be appropriate. But efforts to reach a settlement with the companies that flooded the market with 76 billion prescription-painkiller pills between 2006 and 2012 have bogged down in conflict and infighting while the epidemic rages virtually unabated.
As always, the Rosenthal Center is concerned with the care of adolescents and other vulnerable individuals struggling with addiction. The reason for this was made quite clear to me when I visited young people at the Outreach facility on Long Island. What those teens, ages 14 to 17, told us about their experiences vaping the powerful marijuana component THC—often starting in middle school—is hard evidence the nation is facing a new and formidable drug problem that threatens to ensnare the next generation.
We have the knowledge, resources and determination to confront and overcome these challenges. Looking ahead to 2020, the Rosenthal Center will continue to advocate policies to help those seeking treatment to rebuild their lives without drugs. To achieve success, strong leadership is required at every level of government—city, state and federal—as well as the participation of the private sector to establish a comprehensive nationwide anti-drug effort.