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NEWSWIRE: 7/22/19

  • Drug overdose deaths fell 4.2% in 2018, according to preliminary CDC data. This would be the first decline since 1990 and sparks hope that the opioid crisis may finally be leveling off—but it’s also clear that the decline is not uniform, with 18 states seeing double-digit increases. (NPR)
    • NH: Looking at preliminary CDC monthly data, we could tell since late last year that total overdose deaths would peak in 2018. And we announced this welcome turning-point last December. (See "Trendspotting: 12/17/18.") It's not much of a decline. The trend should really be described as flattening-at-a-very-high-level. But it's obviously good news.
    • What's going on? The Feds are cracking down on prescription opioids. What's more, every firm involved in the production, distribution, and sale of prescription opioids has woken up to the existential threat posed by gigantic tort lawsuits. They now understand that it's not enough to follow the letter of the law or regulation. They have to act like they really care about who they're selling to. So, for example, if a distributor like McKesson, Walgreens, or Cardinal Health actually knows it is selling hundreds of opioid pills per resident per year to an entire county (yes, that has happened), well, the firm is actually supposed to practice due diligence and find out why this local run on a controlled substance is happening.
    • The total size, btw, of the liability claims facing Big Pharma is staggering. According to some of the numbers now being leaked by expert witnesses in advance of the massive group trial scheduled by a federal district court in Cleveland, Ohio, the total amount being asked by state and local plaintiffs is approaching $500 billion. This would dwarf the Big Tobacco settlement in the late 1990s. Assisting the plaintiffs is a detailed DEA database on pill shipments that The Washington Post has just made public (over the bitter objections of both the drug companies and federal agencies.) To hear more about this action and its consequences, please listen to my Demography Unplugged podcast for this week.
    • Given the significance of the decline in prescription opioid deaths, we should have expected a larger decline in total deaths than we are now seeing. Prescription deaths peaked (YoY) in May of 2017 and have since declined by about 2,400. But total deaths have actually risen since then by about 1,600--which has kept the total death toll (now at 47,016) from declining very much. Put simply: Deaths from other illegal drugs are rising at the same time that deaths from legal prescriptions are falling.
    • Most of the problem, as we have often discussed, is that many legal users who can no longer get prescription opioids are turning to illegal opioid substitutes. Indeed, health authorities now speak of three overlapping waves of the opioid epidemic. Wave one, starting in 1999 and peaking in 2017, is prescription opioids. Wave two, starting in 2010 and peaking around the same time, is heroin. Wave three, starting in 2013 and still rising, is fentanyl.
    • Today, fentanyl is basically taking over the opioid epidemic. A synthetic opioid roughly a hundred times more potent than heroin, it is prone to overdose, cheap to manufacture, easy to ship or smuggle, can be fabricated domestically (hence, does not have to cross borders). At last count, 67% of all opioid deaths (YoY) are caused by fentanyl overdosing (see first chart below). A stunning 47% of total drug overdose deaths now involve fentanyl.
    • The actual share may even be larger. This is because, reportedly, a rising percentage of cocaine and (possibly) methamphetamine deaths have been due to these drugs being cut with fentanyl. (Death rates from both coke and meth has risen in the last several years.) Why are dealers cutting these drugs with fentanyl? Experts are uncertain. Dealers may be tempted to cut their product with something cheaper--or believe that this can help "hook" their customers on their product. Then again, killing your customer rarely makes much sense. Most experts believe the cutting is inadvertent, caused by switching assembly labs quickly from one drug to another without cleaning up.
    • Amid all these bleak trends, there is one bit of good news. Few of these addiction trends are showing up in teens or young adults in their early 20s. This news comes from the latest report by the federally funded Monitoring the Future survey, the gold standard for tracking drug use among youth. Among 12th-graders, use of just about any unprescribed drug other than marijuana continues to fall to record lows--and this includes any form of psycho-stimulant (including cocaine and meth) and any form of opioid. (See last five charts below.) A similar decline or flat trend can be seen among young-adults in their early 20s
    • In terms of the percentage rise in age-specific death rates, the opioid epidemic has affected late-wave Boomers and early-wave Millennials the hardest (today, age 25 to 65). Youth under age 25, along with seniors over age 65, have experienced much smaller increases.

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart2

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart3

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart4

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart5

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart6

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart12

  • The end of Mad Magazine has nostalgic readers, including cartoonist Tim Kreider, bidding farewell to the “Boomer Bible.” Kreider’s op-ed reflects on how the magazine, whose circulation peaked in 1973, defined snark and contrarian comedy for a generation of kids. (The New York Times)
    • NH: The problem with Mad Magazine was similar to the problem with Playboy. Back in the day, when it was only read by the rising generation, it was daring, subversive, creative, and funny. But as time went on, and everybody started reading it, there was no longer any point. Once all generations were on board, who cared?
    • Today, aging Boomers and Xers still dominate the production of pop-culture satire, especially at the high-brow end--from SNL to The Onion to Letterman to Maher. In such a world, there is no place for Mad Magazine. Increasingly, the only way Millennials can be different is by being less idiotic than their elders.
    • At one point, the dopey Boomer author (Tim Kreider) writes that back around 1970 Mad Magazine "was a healthy antidote to earlier generations’ automatic deference to an authority that too seldom deserved it. It’s hard to believe now that there was really a time when people trusted their elected officials to act in the best interest of the country or had reverence for the presidency: They seem, to us, like a race of credulous children."
    • Spoken like the true Boomer you are, Tim. Yet somehow these "credulous children" conquered poverty, raised living standards, strengthened the middle class, built gleaming universities, invested heavily in the future, and took America to the moon. Omg, Tim, where are those children now that we need them?
  • PepsiCo has hit pay dirt with a surprise product: Mountain Dew for gamers. The company, which has struggled with overall declines in soda consumption, beat quarterly estimates thanks to strong sales of Game Fuel, a caffeine-loaded energy drink aimed at gamers competing in tournaments. (Bloomberg)
    • NH: E-gaming is indeed the next big thing for Americans under 30--especially males under 30. It's no secret that guys in the zone have an insatiable appetite for sugar and caffeine. What's more amazing, in this case, is how they don't mind brands shamelessly targeting their gaming obsession. How can you resist a can that says it's a "Charged Tropical Strike." And then promises "Alertness... Accuracy... Vitamins A&B."

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart10 

  • Support for legal abortion is at its highest since 1995, with 60% of Americans saying it should be allowed in all or most cases. Legal abortion has majority support among several groups: Democrats, independents, those with no religious preference, those under 40, and interestingly, Republican men but not women. (ABC News)
    • NH: The rising numbers revealed by this ABC News poll probably does reflect a genuine public-opinion shift toward "legal" abortion. Pew Research recently came to a similar finding--that 58% of Americans believe abortion should be "legal," the highest number since the mid-1990s. (Gallup, on the other hand, shows no such shift.)
    • But a few caveats are in order. Surveys about abortion are notoriously hard to read because most Americans don't have simple opinions either way. Only a third believe abortion should be legal (25%) or illegal (15%) in nearly all cases. That leaves the other 65% saying "some cases" or "most cases" or "don't know" in varying degrees that can be interpreted differently given the wording of the question or the historical context. Right now, with many states working to tighten abortion restrictions (nine states have enacted abortion bans in 2019), that context may be relevant. Many Americans may be indicating that they don't agree with the state "bans" they hear regularly reported in the media.
    • Abortion, like gun rights, is a classic wedge issue: It doesn't rank highly among issues that most Americans care about, but it but ranks very high to the extreme values right and values left. That means most people aren't much interested in changing the status quo, but they might be induced to resist change if one side or the other is perceived to be winning. In recent years, with the GOP dominating so many state governments, it's the right-to-live movement that's on the march. The movement's new and provocative strategy is to "ban" abortion in order to force the Supreme Court to re-think Roe v Wade.
    • This strategy may backfire. Some 69% of Americans say they don't want Roe to be "completely overturned." And even many conservatives think the strategy misguided. Supporters say that large majorities of Americans in many states believe abortion should be illegal. They argue that large geographic differences in attitudes toward abortion lends support to the proposition that states should be allowed to enforce their own norms.
    • Unlike attitudes toward divorce and gay marriage, attitudes toward abortion haven't changed much over the last half-century. They became decisively more liberal during the 1960s, when Boomers came of age, but have remained basically trendless ever since--aside from a brief liberalizing "Clinton-era" bubble during the early 1990s.
    • Attitudes differ a lot by party, ideology, education, and religious orientation: Democrats, progressives, the college-educated, and the religiously unaffiliated tend to be more pro-choice.  But attitudes don't differ much by gender or race. Neither do they differ much by age. Millennials, raised as kids to believe every child is "special," are much less likely than Xers or Boomers (at the same age) to have an abortion themselves. They are as likely to be pro-life as older generations. And they are only slightly more likely to say abortion should be legal "in all or most cases."

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart7 

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart8 

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart9

  • Typos, non sequitors, and fake news galore: Meet the Millennials roleplaying online as Boomers. They’re part of a wildly popular Facebook group that has grown to 250,000+ members, where typing like their elders (typical post: “HATE THE P.C. B*LL SH*T !!!,”) has become a way to gently poke fun and blow off steam. (Salon)
    • NH: As I pointed out last month, Salon was among the first to notice back in 2012 a new essay genre: Millennials bashing Boomers. (See "Trendspotting: 6/10/19.") Salon itself has hosted many such essays. Now here comes a new trend, initiated by a 20-year-old: Millennials parodying Boomers on social media. Apparently, many young adults find catharsis in this sort of generational ridicule.
    • On college campuses, one might expect such activities to be denounced as cultural appropriation. (Think of this as a sort of "generational blackface.") But then again, all is fair when the appropriators believe themselves to be in a position of economic and political subjugation. And until they scrape together that first mortgage, most Millennials probably do feel they will never rise to their parents' living standard. So pour it on, kids! If Boomers really are as clueless as you pretend, they won't even get the joke.
  • Faced with a shortage of manufacturing talent, France has launched a new campaign to get young people back on the factory floor. The French Fab tour is offering workshops and VR experiences at schools at the same time the government is encouraging businesses to take more risks and train new workers on the job. (Bloomberg Businessweek)
    • NH: French manufacturers need more than a roadshow featuring a blue rooster. It needs less regulated labor markets (Macron is working on that). It needs to rebuild its apprenticeship system (here France could learn much from Germany). And maybe most of all it needs a national educational system that is less "academic" and theoretical and more helpful to youth seeking practical opportunities. Even more than in America, the French stigmatize noncollege blue-collar work as somehow lacking in social prestige. In this sense, the whole red-rooster versus blue-rooster schtick simply perpetuates the problem.
  • Oxford academic Carl Frey, co-author of the notorious study that stoked fears of a job-automation apocalypse, is back to calm people down. In his new book The Technology Trap, Frey argues that more automation will lead to productivity and wage gains in the long run, but only if policymakers are prepared to deal with the growing pains in the short run. (The Economist)
    • NH: Who has not heard, at conferences or just in conversation, the claim that machines will make "47% of all of today's jobs" obsolete within a decade or two? The source of this claim is a 2013 report of the University of Oxford's Department of Engineering Sciences.
    • Just one thing: The report never says this. The 47% refers instead to an entirely arbitrary category of jobs that the authors calculate are the most likely to be automated. The purpose was to show which kinds of jobs would probably be automated first (those in the middle-skill levels, it turns out), not to say anything about when this is likely to happen.
    • We know this because one of the co-authors, Carl Frey, has come forward to insist that his study has been misunderstood. Now, all we need is for Frey to speak directly to Silicon Valley CEOs and to progressive leaders in the Democratic Party--many of whom cite this 47% factoid in support of a proposed "universal basic income." Andrew Yang, a favorite among geeky Millennial males, is practically basing his entire 2020 presidential campaign on this proposal.
  • Die-hard sports fans are being replaced by “fluid fans” who support multiple teams. Fully 42% of young sports fans in the U.K. (ages 16 to 24) support at least two soccer teams, which observers credit to access to sports highlights videos and the proliferation of global games available to view across so many screens. (Bloomberg)
    • NH: The rising generation of youth fans poses three challenges for the pro-sports-media complex. First, a declining share of school-age children grows up playing team sports on a regular basis. This weakens the traditional connection between youth and major sports. Second, young people see pro sports as only one in a nearly infinite variety of entertainment options available to them and competing for their attention. And even among sports, the major leagues aren't as dominant as they once were. (Networks now show curling, rugby, volleyball, the UFC, even egaming.)
    • Finally, there's the expectation that pro sports brands can shove ever more engagement down fans' throats (blogs, replays, highlights, analysis, drafts, fantasy, gambling, gaming, etc.) without ever exhausting the available hours of the day--or the fans' pocketbook.
    • The result, according to The Sports Innovation Lab, is an emerging generation of "fluid fans."  These are fans with multiple interests and multiple team loyalties and weaker ties to any one franchise. These are also fans who often want to be actively engaged in the sport--not just be passive viewers. And they are fans who will absolutely choose to go somewhere else if the price of entry is too high.
  • By 2036, adults age 60 and older will be a larger share of California’s population than kids under 18. California is facing the usual challenges of an aging population along with one unique to the state: how to combat ageism against seniors in a place with a youthful, trendsetting reputation. (The Sacramento Bee)
    • NH: Lots of Boomers were born in California, and lots of Boomers migrated there during its '70s- and '80s-era heyday of population expansion. Ever since, California's population growth has been decelerating. (See "Trendspotting: 6/24/19.")
    • Demographically, that's going to strand a massive number of aging Boomers in a state with relatively fewer younger residents. Between 2010 and 2045, Californians age 60+ will nearly double as a share of the state's population, from 16% to 30%.
    • Think California is unaffordable now? California currently ranks 41st in fiscal solvency. Relative to other states, it underspends on education and health and currently ranks highest in poverty (due largely to its soaring cost of living). This coming tsunami of aging Boomers isn't going to make things any easier. The graying of California will cause state taxes to rise and state services to economize.
    • It will also require--I have argued--big qualitative changes in how public agencies relate to younger and older voters. I doubt if any of these changes have made their way into Governor Gavin Newsom's platitudinous "Master Plan for Aging."

Trendspotting: Overdose Mortality Falling, But Fentanyl Deaths Still Rising - July21 chart11

  • A new feature article showcases a sign of the times: Amazon nomads. These RV dwellers make a living searching clearance aisles around the country for goods to ship to Amazon and flip for a profit: a symbol of both Amazon’s retail dominance and how much the company has changed the seller landscape. (The Verge)
    • NH: This story will be appreciated by anyone who understands that it's arbitrage (buying low and selling high) that makes markets function. "Amazon Marketplace" is a microcosm of our entire national economy. It possesses its own vast ecosystem, with special niches and roles even for people with the most unusual talents and lifestyles.
    • Yes, there's even a place for the RV guy who loves to case out remote strip malls all day--and then watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon the next morning.

DID YOU KNOW?

A Bed Worth Barking About. With its Chesterfield-style design and $399.99 price tag, the Cornelia Sofa from Wayfair would be a luxurious addition to any living room. But before you hit buy, ask Fido. It’s for dogs. The sofa is part of Wayfair’s Archie & Oscar collection, a line of pet furnishings launched last year with nearly 1,000 pieces resembling scaled-down versions of human furniture. Discerning cat owners can peruse The Refined Feline, whose wares include a $5,000 cat tower with five platforms lined in white faux fur. The rise of high-end pet furniture is yet another example of the humanization of pets, which has been helped along by the development of regional pet stores and local boutiques. At the same time, the range of “acceptable” animals worth pampering has narrowed: While sales of specialty products and foods for dogs and cats have surged, sales of rabbit, rodent, bird, and fish food have all declined.