Missourians’ average life expectancy dropped by about one-tenth of a year in 2018, says a new state report. It sounds insignificant but for this detail: Virtually all that change comes from deaths among young people. For Missourians 15 to 44, life expectancy has dropped by an astounding 30% since 2012 — with the bulk of it attributable to opioid overdoses and firearms. In all, Missouri’s life-expectancy rate is fully 1½ years shorter than the national average.
In the dry language of data, the report by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Bureau of Vital Records presents an alarming portrait of a state in which people die too young from drugs and gun violence run amok. Might this have something to do with Missouri’s notably lax policies regarding prescription drug monitoring and gun safety? It’s a fair question.
In the decade between 2008 and 2018, opioid-related deaths in Missouri spiked almost 250%, from 468 to 1,132. The report attributes that spike overwhelmingly to fentanyl, an especially powerful opioid that has worked its way into the heroin market in both prescription and illicit forms. “The use of fentanyl is a particular problem in the St. Louis area,” the report notes.
The same could be said of gun deaths, of course, as St. Louis faces an epidemic of fatal shootings, with more than a dozen children among the victims.Statewide, according to the report, firearms-related deaths — homicides, suicides and accidents — rose from 811 to 1,312 between 2008 and 2018, a more than 60% increase.
Why is Missouri seeing more of these kinds of deaths, and more than the national average? Two factors should be considered — both tied to a state government controlled by a Republican supermajority that has substituted hard-right ideology for serious drug and firearms policies.
Missouri remains the only state without a statewide system to monitor drug prescriptions to ensure opioids aren’t being harvested from pharmacies for illicit use. St. Louis County has established its own, more limited monitoring system, which other counties have joined. But a statewide system has been consistently blocked by right-wingers obsessed with the scourge of government intrusion from such a database — as if Missouri isn’t facing an actual scourge of overdose deaths.
Similarly, on guns, Missouri lawmakers have stripped out regulations to the point that St. Louis police have virtually no tools to use against people walking around the city fully armed, with no permit required. Even felons who aren’t supposed to have guns can easily get them through private sellers since Missouri refuses to require universal background checks on all purchasers.
There’s no way to know how much of this is cause and effect. But given these ideologically driven policies (or lack thereof), it would be surprising if Missouri wasn’t awash in shootings and opioid deaths.