JUST as Americans headed home for the year-end holidays, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its annual report on mortality—which had no news to celebrate. According to the report, published on December 21st, life expectancy in America fell in 2016, for the second year in a row. An American baby born in 2016 can expect to live on average 78.6 years, down from 78.9 in 2014. The last time life expectancy was lower than in the preceding year was in 1993. The last time it fell for two consecutive years was in 1962-63.
Other statistics suggest that this alarming trend is caused by the epidemic of addiction to opioids, which is becoming deadlier. Drug overdoses claimed more than 63,000 lives in 2016. Two-thirds of these deaths were caused by opioids, including potent synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and tramadol, which are easier to overdo by accident and are becoming more popular among illegal drug users.
According to the CDC, the leading causes of death in 2016 remained heart disease and cancer. But a category called “unintentional injuries”, which includes drug overdoses, climbed to third place—from fourth place in 2015 and fifth place in 2012. Although unintentional injuries caused just 6% of deaths in 2016, they claim mostly people in the prime of their lives. A young person’s death cuts average life expectancy by more than the death of an older person.
The steepest rise in mortality was among 25- to 34-year-olds. In that age group deaths per 100,000 people from any cause increased by 11% from 2015 to 2016. Mortality from drug overdoses in the same age group shot up by 50% from 2014 to 2016.
At the same time, the decrease in mortality from heart disease and cancer—which has been a chief driver of the steady increase in life expectancy—has begun to level off. As a result, further increases in overdose deaths would probably push life expectancy down again. A decline for three straight years was last seen in America a century ago, when the Spanish flu pandemic ravaged the world.
This outcome seems likely. According to CDC officials, provisional data for the first half of 2017 suggest that overdose deaths continued to rise. Foot-dragging by President Donald Trump’s administration has not helped matters. On the campaign trail in 2016, Mr Trump promised to take on the opioid epidemic as a priority. So far, his administration has not produced a plan or appointed a “drug tsar” to oversee a strategy to curb addiction. Nor has it asked Congress to allocate the billions of dollars needed to treat the estimated 2m people hooked on opioids. The national Public Health Emergency Fund has just $57,000 on hand, because it has not been replenished for years. States and local authorities are setting up addiction-treatment services. But without new money from federal sources, their efforts will buckle under the weight of the problem.
A continued decline in life expectancy would leave America trailing even farther behind other rich countries. Lives in America are already two years shorter than the average in the OECD group of 35 rich and soon-to-be-rich countries: life expectancy is closer to Costa Rica’s and Turkey’s than to that of Britain, France and Germany. If the administration cannot reverse this then—at least when it comes to longevity in the Western world—its policy might be described as America Last.