Health

Is SoCal's diversity one reason the opioid epidemic isn't as bad here?

Teenagers are most at risk for opioid poisoning, but the rate more than doubled for toddlers from 1997 to 2012.
Teenagers are most at risk for opioid poisoning, but the rate more than doubled for toddlers from 1997 to 2012.
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President Trump brought renewed attention to the opioid epidemic Thursday when he declared it a national public health emergency, but experts say it won't likely lead to increased funding to fight the problem in Southern California. That's because the problem is not as acute as it is elsewhere in the country; a public health official says ethnic diversity may be one reason why.

The region has lower than average rates of opioid abuse and overdose compared with other states. In L.A. County, 327 people died of opioid overdoses last year; 277 died in Orange County. San Bernardino had 34 deaths. Riverside and Ventura counties had 107 and 41 deaths, respectively.

Public officials take those numbers seriously, but they reflect much lower rates than in states like West Virginia and Ohio.

L.A. County's ethnic diversity may work in favor of  lower overdose rates, said Gary Tsai, medical director and science officer for the substance abuse prevention and control department at the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

"Diversity can be protective from something like the opioid epidemic where it involves an overuse of medications," he said.

Tsai cited research that shows Asians and Latinos are less likely to turn to pills for pain relief.

California’s economic recovery may be another factor, according to Chris Evans, director of the Center for Opioid Receptors and Drugs of Abuse at UCLA.

Areas of the country where the opioid crisis is worst are suffering from high unemployment, he noted, adding that tough financial times can lead to depression.

"My impression is that there’s lots of despair [in those areas] with respect to the job market and loss of jobs," Evans said. "If you look at the statistics regarding opiate use disorder and the relationship with stress and depression, there’s a very high comorbidity."

Shana Alex Charles, assistant professor at the Department of Health Science at Cal State Fullerton, applauded the president’s declaration of a public health emergency. But she was "a little surprised to see the president veer into more of a criminal discussion, talking about illegal drugs and gangs and moving in that direction," she said, "when the opioid epidemic has actually been linked more to prescription practices and over prescribing."

Charles said the medical profession in Southern California has been making progress in the effort to reduce opioid prescriptions.