“A report from the National Safety Council (NSC) has prompted a bunch of news stories highlighting the finding that an American’s lifetime risk of dying from an accidental opioid overdose is now greater than his lifetime risk of dying in a car crash. “Odds of Dying From Accidental Opioid Overdose in the U.S. Surpass Those of Dying in Car Accident,” says the CNN headline, while The New York Times reports that “the opioid crisis in the United States has become so grim that Americans are now likelier to die of an overdose than in a vehicle crash.” The NSC itself claims “your odds of dying from an accidental opioid overdose are greater than [your odds of] dying in a motor vehicle crash.”
All of this is highly misleading for a couple of reasons. First, the danger of dying from opioids, unlike the danger of dying in a car crash, can be readily avoided by most people. Second, the NSC’s calculation lumps together different kinds of drug use that pose very different levels of risk, ranging from substantial to negligible.
As Josh Bloom notes at the American Council on Science and Health’s blog, journalists “feel the need to compare opioid overdose deaths to those from automobile accidents, as if the two have anything to do with each other.” Bloom wonders what sort of conclusion we are supposed to draw from this ranking: that arranging more fatal car crashes would alleviate the “opioid crisis”? He also notes that treating “opioid overdoses” as a single cause of death conflates heroin and illicit fentanyl, which are involved in the vast majority of such cases, with prescription pain medication, which accounts for a small share that looks even smaller once you take drug mixtures into account.”
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