Philip Seymour Hoffman and the middle-aged drug epidemic

February 4, 2014


Celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at age 46 from an apparent heroin overdose is yet another indictment of the ongoing failure of drug war officials, interest groups, and politicians to confront the rising, decades-long epidemic of middle-aged abuse of illicit drugs, which now kills an American age 40-64 every 20 minutes.

Press reports in the wake of Hoffman’s death and recent campaigns by politicians have claimed the increase in opiate-related deaths — which include both prescription drugs like Oxycontin, and street-level drugs like heroin — is recent. Yet opiate and other illicit-drug deaths have been increasing for three decades. Although public service campaigns have long invoked “new” scourges of heroin and opiates that afflict middle-class young people, the group that most frequently dies from the most-abused drugs — street and pharmaceutical opiates — is white, middle-aged adults, not teenagers and young adults.

Over the nearly 30 years that Washington has waged an intense “war on drugs,” more than 30 million Americans have been arrested and five million have been imprisoned for drug offenses. Yet deaths from illicit drug abuse have also skyrocketed during this time. Drug abuse is now the United States’ leading cause of premature death, topping traffic accidents, guns fatalities and AIDS.

In 1980, around 2,500 Americans age 40-64 died from abusing illicit drugs; today, that number has swelled to over 25,000 per year. Drug abuse has made midlife, a frequently affluent and stable time, the period when Americans are most vulnerable to premature death. It has spawned related crises of crime, imprisonment, suicide, family breakup, and violence in local and international communities.

Yet the White House, Partnership at, and major drug war and drug-legalization interests seem unable to move beyond the stereotype that modern drug abuse is just a problem of teens stealing meds from their parents’ bathrooms. They continue to focus on how to keep increasingly legal marijuana away from youngsters, a goal that is both futile and irrelevant to the real drug epidemic.

There are many reasons for the difficulties in addressing America’s drug abuse crisis. One is the inability to shift away from the traditional politics of treating “wars on drugs” as crusades, blaming feared populations for feared drugs — historically, the Chinese and opium and Mexicans and marijuana; in modern times, inner-city residents and crack cocaine. However, when drug abuse is prevalent in a “respectable” demographic such as middle-aged white adults, officials and interests are reluctant to stigmatize a powerful constituency they normally seek to flatter.

Decades of misdirected debate and inept policy have fostered a larger, disturbing reality: Americans of all ages ingest mood-altering drugs regardless of status — whether legal (alcohol), semi-legal (pharmaceuticals), or illegal (street drugs) — with more deadly consequences than citizens of other countries, according to World Health Organization data.

Drug prohibition has failed to stem illicit drug abuse and violence. However, legalizing marijuana and other drugs like alcohol is also perilous in an America with weak individual, social or legal constraints to prevent misuse. Although rarely noted, alcohol-related accidents caused by adults 21 and older represent the fifth-leading cause of death to American teenagers, and the ninth- leading cause of death to children. Federal fatality data shows that every year, drunken adults ages 21 and older cause some 800 deaths and 80,000 injuries to children and teens in a quarter-million traffic crashes.

Initial efforts to legalize marijuana, including lenient standards for driving while high, are showing troubling results. Marijuana-involved traffic accidents rose sharply in Washington State in the first year that the drug was legalized. Unfortunately, legalization interests seem more concerned with pointless moralizing over how to keep marijuana away from teenagers  than addressing the dangers of driving while high.

A third policy alternative, regulating drugs by doctor prescription, is also connected to abuse — from barbiturates in the 1960s to medical opiates today. The current drug abuse crisis among middle-aged Americans consists of a mysterious combination of those with long-term problems, like Hoffman suffered, and those who developed drug abuse problems later in life.

More effective policy solutions include California’s reform efforts mandating intensified local drug treatment as an alternative to jail, prison sentences for low-level offenders (a strategy the White House just announced it will pursue for federal prisoners), and a 2011 reform reducing marijuana use by all ages to a rarely-enforced infraction. (Did teens afforded de facto legal marijuana go crazy? Hardly. Crime, hard drug arrests, school dropout rates, and related ills plunged to record lows among California youth in 2011 and 2012.) Meanwhile, California’s drug abuse death rate, much worse than the national average for decades, is now below the national average. Policies that mix decriminalization of the harmless use of milder drugs by teenagers and adults, stronger controls on prescriptions, and greater availability of drug treatment options seem to hold the most promise, but remain difficult to implement.

The Obama administration should launch a realistic investigation of 21st century drug abuse realities — a project long overdue and befitting a president who promised to employ science and reason in the interests of change.

PHOTOS: U.S. actor Philip Seymour Hoffman poses on the red carpet during a screening for the movie “The Master” at the 69th Venice Film Festival in Venice September 1, 2012. REUTERS/Max Rossi 

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman attends the premiere of the film A Most Wanted Man at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart 



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at age 46 from an apparent heroin overdose is yet another indictment of OBAMACARE’s Mexican cure-all.

Posted by FifthColumFirst | Report as abusive

The failure of the War on Drugs is simple, it didn’t happen. We can stop a bomb the size of a briefcase from coming into this country, but we can’t stop 10,000 tons of dope. There are good people in law enforcement trying to do a good job, but they can’t fight the tide of money. There are too many other people, in government jobs, taking cash under the table, always have been. The many forms of corruption and substance abuse are a part of the human condition. We cannot stamp them out, because the enemy is us. We can never condone substance abuse with its virulent social and self-destructive consequence. We must continue developing ways to address it, helping those we can. We can fight corruption. Locking up a kid for a hundred dollar bag will never address the social economic structure of the drug business. As Malcom X said “Ninety percent of crime requires the cooperation of the political, judicial, and law enforcement segments of the government.” Start at the top with stricter punishments for those who are given the public trust and abuse it. Think Congress!

Posted by nozone | Report as abusive

Drug use should be legalized and the individual removed from criminalization. Not that I am a user, I use no drugs and have a drink maybe once a year for a special occasion. Drug use should be seen as a health/mental illness issue and dealt with accordingly. The death of this actor is a sad tragedy but it was his decision to abuse himself. The only laws concerning drug use in an illegal way should involve areas where others may be physically harmed by the user or public tranquility is affected.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

@keebo excellent post!

Posted by RandomName2nd | Report as abusive

Just say NO to drugs. Set the fine example yourself & raise your children to do the same. It’s just that simple!

Posted by AlexisKlatt | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, your article while well-meaning is cluttered with the same stereotypical images of drugs and the reasons people of all groups take them.

First of all, the basic problem is American attitudes towards alcohol and drugs, one which has deep moralistic roots in our society, that must be overcome in order to develop a rational plan to control drugs and alcohol.

The “War on Drugs”, which is little more than a catch-phrase or bumper sticker slogan, implies that this is a winnable fight that can be “won” somehow, if we just continue to throw money at it and try hard enough.

This is a “Vietnam War” mentality, which completely ignores the underlying causes of the “war”, which are a wide range of economic and social issues that manifest themselves as alcohol and drug abuse.

For one thing, not all drugs are “created equal” yet we devote precious resources to a wide “battle front” with little or no regard whether any particular “front” deserves to be treated differently.

For example, does alcohol really deserve to be treated as a “drug” in the same manner as, say, heroin? Or as cocaine? Or methamphetamines? Classifying alcohol as a drug subtly changes what is normally consumed in a rational social drinking atmosphere into something that is insidiously destroying your health, so that alcohol consumption should be avoided completely.

Similarly, does marijuana deserve to have “war” declared upon its use?

Or the ultimate in the moralistic admonition to “Just say no”? (from Wikipedia) “Just Say No” was an advertising campaign, part of the U.S. “War on Drugs”, prevalent during the 1980s and early 1990s, to discourage children from engaging in illegal recreational drug use by offering various ways of saying no. Eventually, this also expanded the realm of “Just Say No” to violence and premarital sex. The slogan was created and championed by First Lady Nancy Reagan during her husband’s presidency.[1]”

What we need is to literally throw out ALL of the present drug and alcohol laws and rewrite them so that each is treated rationally and logically in terms of its threat to our society.

We need to FIRST purge ourselves of our own moralistic, judgmental approach, before we can deal with this problem effectively.

WE, as a society, are the real problem.

We must cure ourselves first before we can help others who are in desperate need.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

“Drug use” is pretty much already legal in the US, so I don’t think the gvmt has got it all wrong. However, this “war on drugs” is not a winnable war, and the US would be much better off by dropping that and hardening penalties to those that commit crimes while under the influence. As to drug use and it’s horrific results to it’s users, there’s really little one can do to stop someone from abusing drugs, much the same as there’s little one can do to stop people from overeating, other than educating people on the matter.

Posted by XianSheng | Report as abusive

When is society going to stop celebrating F-ups? Millions of people go out there and do their jobs every day, take care of their kids, pay bills, and do it all without so much as a pat on the back. Some selfish moron that only cares about getting high dies, and people make him out to be some sort of hero or something.

People who think legalizing everything that causes problems, are delusional. Alcohol is legal, and it still kills people all over the place, and is directly related to crime increases. Why do you think it’s banned in many native American areas? Because when it was legal, they had so much crime, they couldn’t even handle it all. People still make illegal alcohol… Marijuana is essentially legal in places like CA, yet the national forests are more filled with illegal patches, run by Mexican drug lords, than ever before. The concept of legalizing stuff, only makes sense with people who are too simpleminded to comprehend reality.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Hoffmann was an actor that seemed to have so much range he wasn’t quite human. Somehow -it doesn’t surprise me he was a heavy drug user.

One could say the drug either helped him destroy himself or get over himself. He made himself fascinating and it hurts like hell to be noticed too much. Or it can if the notice isn’t all that kind, (and it wouldn’t be, not in Hollywood), in spite of the Academy awards rhetoric every year.

One thing people who are not, or never were, very famous seem not to notice: it’s hard to lead a very public life and a very private one – like most people – without some kind of aid. Drugs are a very common form of recreation in Hoffman’s environment and he could easily afford them. At least that’s what I’ve noticed about social life in general, let alone in Hollywood. Perhaps someone as pressured as he was used them as the only way he could get “me” time or the way to live in that environment? And he was evidently able to live with them to get what he needed out of them. That is the pragmatic rule that governs most people’s actions, Isn’t it?

White middle class men tend to make more money than most others so they can afford the expensive pleasures (or sins) if you like. But “sins” is hardly a definitive description of a lot of human activity that has at one time or another been called sinful. There is seldom all that much agreement about degrees of “sinful”, especially over time. I don’t find Hoffman’s death scandalous or a sermon in what one shouldn’t do, as much as, perhaps, knowing when to make an exit while his star was still shining? He may not have been able to do better in the future?

Many seem to do what they do because they really don’t belong to anyone and even a state of “belonging” in life can devolve into a state of mutual entrapment and a legal issue more than a state of deep mutual attraction. But I know next to nothing about his career of personal life.

Obviously prohibition didn’t work. Alcohol is also a drug and you can’t really cherry pick without looking like hypocrites. The world isn’t likely to turn Islamic or Mormon either.

If I had lived only 46 years and did what he did – I don’t think I’d feel cheated, actually.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The linked article doesn’t say “Marijuana-involved traffic accidents rose sharply in Washington State in the first year that the drug was legalized.”

The article actually says “figures show that more drivers have tested positive for marijuana since the state legalized the drug last year” which is distinctly different from marijuana involved traffic accident.

Maybe its a british article, the only country in the world to have recorded “marijuana deaths”.

Laughable really but meh, what place do facts have in the war on drugs?

Posted by thebriang | Report as abusive

[…] abuse and addiction. Substance abuse is the leading cause of death in the U.S among adults aged 40-64, and those numbers are rising. Over the past 30 years, the middle-age demographic has increasingly […]

Posted by The Middle-Age Addiction Problem | Report as abusive