A Look at Opioid Epidemic in Native American Communities: Tribes in CrisisAugust 14, 2018
The opioid epidemic is one of the biggest public health crises to hit the U.S. in recent history. While this crisis transcends socio-economic status, it has hit certain communities especially hard. One community that has been especially ravaged by the opioid epidemic is the Native American community.
The Scope of the Opioid Crisis in Native American Communities
The latest statistics1 on opioid deaths in Native American communities paint a horrific picture:
- Although Native Americans comprise only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, they have the highest rate of opioid-related deaths out of any racial group in the U.S.
- The rate of opioid deaths among Native Americans is triple the rate of opioid fatalities among Latinos and African Americans
- Between 1999 and 2015, the rate of opioid deaths in Native American communities increased by five times.
- In the youth Native American population, opioid use among those 12 and older is double the rate of Caucasians and triple the rate of African Americans.
- About 1 out of every 10 Native Americans between 12 and 19 years old uses prescription opioid drugs for recreational purposes.
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Why Is the Opioid Crisis Particularly Bad in Native American Communities?
Various factors have contributed to Native American communities being hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic. These include (and are not limited to):
- The Indian Health Service’s facilities overprescribing opioids – While over-prescription of opioids has been a problem across the U.S., it’s extraordinarily problematic in the Native American health care system.As Chairman Aaron Payment of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (in Michigan) has explained, “we have been socialized to ask for drugs through tactics pushed by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes it easier for doctors to medicate, rather than offer more common-sense solutions to deal with the body’s naturally occurring responses to pain.”That, coupled with the difficulty of recruiting and retaining quality medical professionals in remote tribal regions, has likely led to far more opioid drugs being prescribed in Native American communities than elsewhere in the U.S.
- Tribal Nations being excluded from public health initiatives – The tribal sovereignty of Native American communities has meant that these peoples and regions are generally overlooked in states’ public health initiatives targeting the opioid crisis. Consequently, state grants for intervening and fighting the opioid epidemic have largely been directed to non-Native American communities, leaving it up to these Native American authorities to create and enact their own initiatives to combat this crisis.
Fighting the Opioid Epidemic in Native American Communities
Despite the pervasiveness and severity of the opioid crisis in Native American communities, actions are being taken to fight and end it. Some of these include:
- Action plans, policy recommendations & health initiatives – These have included plans to establish funding streams to specifically target the opioid epidemic in Native American communities. They have also included plans to establish better access to trauma and addiction treatment, intervention programs and behavioral health programs.
- Lawsuits – More than 30 Native American tribes have already taken action to file lawsuits against makers of opioid drugs. These tribes, including the Cherokee and Navajo Nations, allege that pharmaceutical companies, like Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma LP, aggressively marketed opioid drugs, failed to warn the public about serious risks associated with these drugs and distributed massive amounts of these drugs without notifying authorities.
Many of the opioid lawsuits filed by Native American communities have been consolidated with states’ claims in multidistrict litigation (MDL) established in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, Cleveland (in re: National Prescription Opiate Litigation, 17-MD-2804).2 Some tribes are currently fighting to have their cases separated from the MDL.
While it remains to be seen how these lawsuits will pan out, one thing remains clear: Native American communities have joined states in:
- The fight against the opioid epidemic
- Holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their alleged role in creating this crisis.
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