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We must battle opioid scourge

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Houston Chronicle Editorial

Nothing is more important than health, so consider this our recommendation for a nationwide New Year's resolution: End unnecessary deaths.

It has long been a given for advanced societies like the United States that our life expectancy will continue to improve. Each generation, as far as we've known, has a longer lifespan than the last one. In the popular mind, decreased life expectancy is tied to Third World countries battling epidemics or post-Soviet states reeling from collapse.

However, recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should rock us out of our complacency. The average life expectancy in the United States declined in 2016 for the second consecutive year. That hasn't happened in more than a century.

"If you look at the other developed countries in the world, they're not seeing this kind of thing," said Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. "Life expectancy is going up."

The CDC report shows that deaths caused by "unintentional injuries" were a key factor in pushing down life expectancy. A separate CDC report issued the same day made the cause of declining life expectancy clearer. Drug overdoses, particularly from opioids, increased by 21 percent between 2015 and 2016.

At current rates, more than 650,000 Americans -- more than the current population of Montgomery County -- will die of opioid overdoses in the coming decade.

That doesn't have to happen. The opioid issue is a public health crisis, and our nation has a long history of successfully combating public health crises, from polio to auto crashes to AIDS.

The fight against the opioid scourge must address two broad challenges: treating those already addicted and preventing future addiction. In what has been a bipartisan failure, we have not yet responded aggressively on either front.

Opioid prescriptions have declined since 2010, but much more can be done. The Food and Drug Administration can increase its regulatory oversight with prescription opioids.

For those battling addiction, we must make rehabilitation easier to obtain than painkillers and street drugs. Only about 10 percent of those with drug addictions currently get such treatment.

More regulation and additional treatment are just part of the massive response required to address what is becoming a public health catastrophe in this country.

The challenge is daunting, but solutions are feasible. Continuing on our current path is a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans.