The roots of the American opioid crisis run deeper than many assume. Experts date the epidemic’s origins to the late ’90s when pharmaceutical companies downplayed their drugs’ addictive potential to market them aggressively. But if the last 20 years have seen opioid addiction steadily escalate across the country, public outcry is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 2014, a Pew Research Center study found less than a third of Americans regarded drug misuse as a crisis, despite a record number of drug overdose deaths that year.
Since that time, the crisis’ death toll has only accelerated, threatening to claim half a million lives by 2027. Due to the emergence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, overdose is now the leading cause of death for young Americans. But as the opioid epidemic grows ever more menacing, has public awareness of this threat increased as well?
In this project, we surveyed 999 people on their perceptions of the drug epidemic and compared their responses to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Our findings demonstrate how a rising tide of death has altered public awareness of the epidemic – and how many of us remain blissfully ignorant of the crisis in our midst.
Acknowledging the Emergency
Although a majority of people in the U.S. still do not call drug misuse in America “a crisis,” our data revealed that Americans were 25 percent more likely to admit to a modern addiction crisis than they were four years ago. Specifically, those with a college degree or higher saw the largest uptick (63 percent increase) in their rates of admitting to a crisis in 2018. Lesser educated demographics became more aware of the crisis as well, though not to the same extent as college graduates.
Scientists warn that these younger age groups, or 18- to 25-year-olds specifically, are at the highest risk for opioid abuse, so their increased admittance to the problem is perhaps more essential than any other educational demographic.
Results from respondents identifying as Hispanic also seemed to indicate a much-needed perception increase from 2014. This community was 36 percent more likely to perceive the crisis this year. The percentage of respondents that were African-American admitting to the status quo increased by just 22 percent from four years ago. Though the vast majority of those who die from overdoses are white, caucasians were only 25 percent more likely to admit to a nationwide crisis than they were in 2014.
Too Close to Home?
In virtually every demographic, a smaller percentage of respondents identified a crisis in their own community than in the 2014 Pew Research Center study. Overall, Americans are 79 percent less likely today to perceive an addiction crisis in their neighborhood as they were four years ago.
Diagnosing a national problem is one matter; confronting it in your own community is another altogether. Though our 2018 data revealed growing acknowledgment of a drug crisis in America, surprisingly few respondents indicated their own neighborhood as currently severely affected.
It’s certainly possible many of our respondents live in neighborhoods that have been largely spared from the ravages of opioid addictions. But when one considers the far-reaching effects of the epidemic, it’s also quite likely many underestimate the degree to which their local area is struggling. After all, the last few years have caused the nation to reconsider what a neighborhood affected by drug use looks like: Rural and suburban communities are suffering in addition to the urban environments often associated with drugs in media portrayals.
Perceived Severity, Proposed Solutions
In the absence of a viable solution, recognizing a serious problem doesn’t mean much. But whether they felt the country’s drug problem could be called a crisis, the overwhelming majority of respondents thought treatment was the best response to drug addiction. Many lawmakers and experts agree, arguing more federal funding should be allocated for treatment in future budget deals. Some legislators have also considered the incarceration approach, although only a small portion of respondents favored this perspective. In 2017, senators evaluated harsher penalties for traffickers caught selling dangerous synthetic opioids.
Possible Fixes to Consider
When we compare the perspectives voiced by our 2018 participants to their 2014 predecessors, however, we see the enthusiasm for incarceration has dramatically declined in recent years. In the 2014 poll, more than a quarter of respondents favored imprisonment as a method to address the nation’s substance misuse issues. In 2018, just 4 percent of respondents said the same.
This change of heart was evident in every single demographic group to some extent. The shift in preference for treatment rather than incarceration even transcended political affiliation: 42 percent of Republicans supported incarceration in 2014, but just 12 percent did so in 2018. Accordingly, criminal justice reform has become a rare source of bipartisan enthusiasm in recent years – so much so that Republicans and Democrats united to oppose tougher drug crime penalties the Trump administration proposed in 2017.
Fair Use Statement
We welcome your help in spreading awareness of America’s drug crisis. Accordingly, feel free to use our images and information to share our work with your own audience for noncommercial purposes. When you do, please provide a link to this page so that your readers can explore our full findings. Together, we can help more Americans recognize the crisis than ever before.