The opioid epidemic, which President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Thursday, is nothing short of alarming. This is particularly true for American women, who are increasingly dying from opioid overdose at alarming rates. In fighting the opioid epidemic, President Trump must focus on women, and pay special attention to how gender differences affect addiction and overdose rates.
Research conducted in recent years turns up distressing statistics. Eighteen women die every day from prescription opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Furthermore, between 1990 and 2010, the number of prescription opioid deaths increased by 400 percent for women, compared to 265 percent for men. And take into consideration that this is just looking at opiates that are considered legal, which excludes illegal substances, like heroin.
The Trump administration clearly knows that the opioid crisis has been especially painful for women. Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and White House adviser, has suggested that she cares about both women's issues and the opioid crisis. In late February, Ivanka discussed the epidemic with Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, a state hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. Soon after, she retweeted a Washington Post article about opioid abuse, saying: "A sobering look at America's consumption of opioids relative to other countries around the world."
And in July, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price issued a report on women and the opioid epidemic. "The prevalence of prescription opioid and heroin use among women is substantial," the report stated.
What is at the root of this gender disparity, however, is unclear. "The differences between how opioid misuse and use disorder impact women and men are often not well understood," the report states. "Even in areas where differences between the sexes are apparent, such as women appearing to progress more quickly to addiction than men, very little is understood about why those differences occur."
The report did provide some framing for thinking about why women may have been more seriously affected than men. Women are actually more likely to be prescribed highly addictive prescription opioids for pain, the report noted, citing a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. There is also the theory that women, due to their biologies, may become addicted to opioids more quickly than men do — this, however, is not yet fully proven, according to the report.
Another factor considered by the report is women's common social roles: Women, for example, are more likely than men to act as caregivers, a duty that increases depression, a condition that in turn makes one more susceptible to opioid addiction. According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychological and emotional distress makes women more susceptible to opioid addiction, whereas men do not face the same risk factors.
Understanding women's unique vulnerability to opioid addiction will likely help aid efforts to combat the epidemic; however, if the Trump administration is truly dedicated to saving women's lives, it must put politics aside and solve issues by any means science recommends.
One possible path forward is sanctioned injection sites, which many state and local officials have considered. Seattle even opened a government-run injection center in January to decrease the number of overdoses and the spread of disease. Another is to increase access to the life-saving, overdose-reversing drug naloxone, as Rhode Island did. Or, Trump's administration could take a page out of Portugal's playbook and decriminalize opioids, treating overusing them as a medical condition instead of a crime.
These potential solutions may not be easy for a White House already bogged down by so many scandals, but if the opioid epidemic truly matters to Trump and his coterie, they must take the bold actions necessary and make combating this crisis a priority, politics be damned.