Posted on March 21, 2022 by Amanda Cerreto

This op-ed originally appeared in the San Antonio Express News by demography doctoral candidate Camerino I. Salazar and Assistant Professor Ying Huang.

Camerino Salazar

Camerino Salazar, Demography doctoral student

As part of a national $26 billion settlement with three large pharmaceutical distribution companies, Texas will receive nearly $1.2 billion in opioid relief money. This is an opportunity for our state to direct those dollars to save lives and mitigate long-term harm associated with the opioid crisis.

The pandemic has worsened the vulnerability of opioid users and their families. We have seen reductions in access to drug treatment, rising distress, related mental health problems, and the rapid availability of powerfully lethal synthetic opioids.

And the nation's drug overdose epidemic continues to expand and become worse. A report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that from April 2020 to April 2021, over 100,000 Americans died due to drug overdoses, a hike of almost 30 percent.

Unlike our its Northeast and Midwest neighbors, Texas has not entirely borne the brunt of the opioid epidemic; however, our recent analysis finds that Texas witnessed a five-fold increase in opioid-related deaths across 20 years (1999 to 2019). And in recently released data for 2020, we identified 1,979 opioid-related deaths among Texans aged 15 to 64 — an almost 50 percent increase from the previous year.

We found that opioid overdose deaths were more likely to occur among white males aged 25 to 54, but much research has documented the rapidly rising drug overdoses among Hispanics and Blacks, mainly driven by a combination of opioids and drug stimulants, including cocaine and methamphetamines.

photo of Ying Huang

Ying Huang, assistant professor of demography

We estimate that in 2019 the toll of opioid overdose deaths resulted in an estimated nearly 52,000 years of potential life lost. This starkly illustrates the lost social and economic potential that our Texas communities have lost due to opioids. Yet, even more importantly, behind these sobering statistics is a gulf of grief and loss that these deaths leave.

Texas is at a crucial juncture as it looks to distribute these much-needed funds to prevent and mitigate opioid use in Texas. Front and center in allocating these settlement funds will be consulting the best available scientific evidence as to what works to prevent and reduce opioid harm among individuals and communities. However, there is no single policy or program that can comprehensively address opioids. Fundamental to Texas addressing these trends will be to firmly understand the root causes. National studies find that that such factors can range from limited economic opportunity, social and financial instability, and untreated physical pain and mental health issues to racist and discriminatory practices. Understanding these factors is paramount. Texas has an opportunity to distribute these funds in a manner that will develop and tailor equitable solutions to effectively help communities.

Camerino I. Salazar is an Applied demography doctoral candidate in the College for Health, Community and Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Ying Huang is an Assistant Professor of Demography in the College for Health, Community and Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

— Amanda Cerreto