Where are the numbers?

The unfortunate death of Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to have been a catalyst for lots of panicky articles about the heroin epidemic, and from the (admittedly small) sample of articles I’ve seen, calling it an “epidemic” is absurd hyperbole.

I heard a report on NPR last night with statements like “This is not the first time heroin use has skyrocketed in the United States,” descriptions of heroin “flooding” across the border from Mexico and declaration of “stark” statistics.

In the NPR piece, there’s just one number you can call a statistic, and it’s presented without enough context to allow it to support the overblown claims:

“If you look at just the raw statistics,” he says, “over the last four or five years, heroin deaths went up 45 percent.”

Of course, you could have a 45% increase if there were 100 deaths before and 145 more recently. Or if there were 100,000,000 deaths before and 145,000,000 more recently. The percentage increase alone tells us exactly nothing about whether or not there is an epidemic of heroin (ab)use in the US.

This morning, I saw that Kottke links to two stories, neither of which do much better, numbers-wise. The PBS News Hour story says things like

GIL KERLIKOWSKE, U.S. Drug Policy Director: It is a serious problem. We are seeing an increase. I think the concern is always that data usually lacks one or two or sometimes three years, depending on what the survey or what the measure is. But I can tell you, in my travels across the country, and I spoke to the national narcotics officers today at lunch, there is no question we are seeing a resurgence of heroin.

The only numbers that have even a hint of a chance at supporting claims of a serious problem or a heroin resurgence come later, when Mr. Kerlikowske mentions 22 deaths in Western Pennsylvania from heroin laced with other opiates. Of course, his point here isn’t to support the claim of a resurgence, it’s to point out that black market drugs can vary wildly in their contents. In any case, since we don’t have any idea how many people normally die from heroin in Western Pennsylvania, 22 deaths is an utterly uninformative statistic.

The article about the Vermont Governor’s State of the State speech on drug abuse gives us the hardest, and most interpretable, numbers I’ve seen, and they don’t make a good case for claims of an epidemic or floods of heroin washing over the country:

Last year, he said, nearly twice as many people here died from heroin overdoses as the year before. Since 2000, Vermont has seen an increase of more than 770 percent in treatment for opiate addictions, up to 4,300 people in 2012.

The bit about twice as many deaths is, as noted above, not very informative. But the statement that 4,300 people received treatment for opiate addictions (opiates being a superset of heroin, please note) in 2012 finally gives us something to work with.

A quick google search tells us that the population of Vermont is 626,011, so that 770% increase up to 4,300 people in treatment makes a grand total of 0.6% – that’s sixth tenths of one percent – of the population of Vermont.

In the article about Vermont’s Governor, there’s a link to another New York Times article, and it gives us similar numbers for a few more states:

Heroin killed 21 people in Maine last year, three times as many as in 2011, according to the state’s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. New Hampshire recorded 40 deaths from heroin overdoses last year, up from just 7 a decade ago. In Vermont, the Health Department reported that 914 people were treated for heroin abuse last year, up from 654 the year before, an increase of almost 40 percent.

Maine has 1,329,000 people, so 0.002% – two thousandths of one percent – of the population died due to heroin in 2012. New Hampshire has 1,321,000 people, so 0.0003% – three thousandths of one percent – of the population there overdosed on heroin and died in 2012. The Vermont numbers in this article show that the people receiving treatment for heroin specifically make up less than 25% of the people receiving treatment for opiates (0.14% of the population, if you do the math).

This is not an epidemic. It’s tragic for the people involved, of course, and I would very much prefer a world in which no one died of heroin overdoses. I can’t imagine the pain of being addicted to heroin, or of having a loved one struggle with or lose their life to such an addiction.

But simply saying it’s an epidemic doesn’t make it true. Nor should it convince anyone that prohibition is the solution to the problem.

Update: Somehow, I had missed this other relevant post by Jacob Sullum, which makes pretty much the same point I made, with similar numbers from other unreliable sources.

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One Response to Where are the numbers?

  1. Man, I love it when people pull this one. Here’s another great recent example:

    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/01/kids-and-guns-by-the-numbers/

    “1,337 — The number of American kids under age 18 who died from gunshot wounds in 2010. This is trending down from 1,490 in 2005 and 1,544 in 2000.”

    It’s presented as though it were alarming, but with 79.3million people under 18 in the US population, it’s so insignificant as to be meaningless. Hell, you could have no guns in existence anywhere and, statistically speaking, expect about that many kids to die from gunshot wounds.

    My favorite repeat offender is the IUPD, though. Every year their number of reported campus rapes is between 5-20 (out of 40k students), and in years where it increases, it’s SHOCKING – up by ZOMG 500%!!! And in years where it decreases there’s a “slight drop,” but exercise caution, blah blah. Truth being, 5-20 reported rapes in a year is just the ambient rate for an environment with horny kids and alcohol, and the year-on-year changes mean nothing.

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