Putting A Face on The Opioid Epidemic

This is a guest post from Richard Leadbeater, State Government Industry Manager at Esri.

At City Summit 2017 in Charlotte, N.C., the National League of Cities presented Esri, a leader in geographic information systems (GIS), with a Service to Cities Award for their work on “mapping the opioid epidemic.”

Early in my career, I learned that, when presenting a problem or issue to “put-a-face-on-it”. To put a face on a problem or issue, is to make something seem more real or easier to understand. Having just celebrated the Veterans holiday, I recalled to my family some of the stories that my Dad would tell about his time in service during World War II. My wife and I also discussed that, as kids growing up during the Vietnam War, we would watch Walter Cronkite, report and read off the body counts of the latest clashes in that far-off war. I must admit that as a kid, these numbers weren’t much more meaningful than the baseball scores for the Baltimore Orioles.

It is this particular memory – coupled with those memories of seeing my older sibling discuss the war with my parents, of picking up my sister from college because her university closed down due to the riots – the scenes of the strife, that we still see in news reels and PBS Specials. One phrase from that period sticks out in my mind, and that memory is of the talking heads on the television stating that “we are losing a generation to this senseless war…”

Opinions about the war aside, it left many divided memories.

So, to explain, here’s a little context. Starting in the year 1957, and over the next 17 years, 58,307 lives were lost to this “senseless war”. I think it’s easy to agree; that’s a lot of lives to lose. But, as it was happening, the people of the US noticed the news media covered the war dialogue nightly; organized and unorganized protests happened weekly; universities shutdown before the semester ended; and a sitting President realized that a second term was out of the question, over this one issue.

So, with the figures of 58,307 lives lost and over 153,303 wounded, I wish to provide some perspective on some other numbers. These numbers are: 27,875; 33,594; 59,779; 591,000; and 2 million.

27,875 represents an estimate of the people who died in motor vehicle crashes on our roadways in 2016. We have an entire federal agency dedicated to highway safety and the reduction of this number. This agency has a sizable budget and regulates what our states and county highway departments do.

33,594 represents the number of deaths by firearms in the last year. How much attention do the media, our lawmakers and advocacy groups spend on this issue? Does a day go by where gun violence isn’t covered in the media? Yet, these numbers are dwarfed by the following numbers; 59,779; 591,000; and 2 million.

59,779 represents the number of deaths by overdose, in 2016. This number exceeds the deaths in motor vehicle crashes for last year. This number exceeds the number of deaths by firearms for last year. This number exceeds the number of casualties for the 17-years of the Vietnam War. The perspective that I wish to convey here is the magnitude of funding, media attention and the attention that you and I give, that these “smaller” problems represent.

My intent is not to diminish the unacceptable numbers of deaths by motor vehicles, firearms and the Vietnam War. My aim is to raise the awareness of the growing number of drug-related deaths, heroin and opioids, in particular. The same attention needs to be applied to the Opioid Crisis. The nation is failing those with addiction problems.

Yes, the cities and counties in the U.S. have elevated this issue to the highest priorities. The National League of Cities (NLC) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) initiated an opioid task force in the spring of 2016 with an action report: A Prescription for Action. And that work continues. Last month, I presented a session at NLC’s City Summit on Applying the Science of Where in Our Fight Against the Opioid Epidemic.

And as for the last two numbers; the Center for Disease Control tells us that in 2016, 591,000 had a substance-use disorder involving heroin and 2 million citizens in the U.S. had a substance-use disorder involving prescription pain relievers.


So, as you have guessed, here is my closing challenge to you. There is no doubt that this is a crisis; a true state of emergency. Lots is being done, but there is room to do more. I’m asking you to share this story map: Celebrating lost Loved Ones to the opioid Epidemic. Share it with people who have a story to tell of a Lost Loved One. Encourage them to have the strength to contribute a photo and story…

We need to put a face to this crisis.

richard leadbetterAbout the author: Richard Leadbeater is the State Government Industry Manager at Esri. Learn more about Esri and the science of where.