The news last week was shocking: Overdoses from opioids are to blame, to a frightful degree, for the average life expectancy in America dropping for the third straight year.

That is a call to action.

At the Cook County Jail, authorities already are putting in place a number of programs designed to combat opioid addiction. On any given day, as many as one in five of the people booked into jail admit to opioid abuse. Other county jails should follow Cook County’s lead.


People who are addicted when they enter the jail are given training in using naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids and can protect against an overdose. Treatment programs have been beefed up for both people in custody and those released on electronic monitoring, and sheriff’s officers carry naloxone with them. The jail treats more than 5,000 people a year for opioid withdrawal.

Still, “I can tell you every day we are trying to think of what more we can do,” Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart, said on Friday.

The United States has the world’s highest drug overdose death rate, chiefly because of opioids. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. More than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, a record.

In Illinois, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths shot up by 70 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Opioids became a much bigger problem in the 1990s when opioid painkillers began to be heavily prescribed, at the enthusiastic recommendation of pharmaceutical companies, and many more people became addicted. When it then became harder to obtain legal opioids, many addicted people turned to illegal heroin, which was cheaper and widely available. More recently, some addicts have turned to fentanyls, which are even more deadly than heroin.

It was fentanyls that killed Prince and Tom Petty.

The United States must make addiction treatment more widely available. Naloxone also should be made more widely available so that fewer overdoses are fatal. And doctors, other healthcare professionals and the public should be trained in more nuanced techniques for pain management.

Fatalities from opioid overdoses are higher today nationally than fatalities from H.I.V., car crashes and guns at their peak.

We face a fast-growing and deadly epidemic.

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