For the best part of a decade, the world has looked on with horror as the US opioid crisis has spiralled out of control. Up until 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths had risen in America every year since 1999, driven in the most part by abuse of both prescription and illicit synthetic opioid-style drugs. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that drug overdoses were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of just over 72,280 people across America in 2017, which was up approximately 10% on the previous year.
The overwhelming majority of those deaths, nearly 49,000, were reported to have been linked to the use of opioids, highlighting the gravity of the threat these drugs pose to US public health. For its part, the Trump administration has sought to treat the problem as a law and order issue, and use it as a political weapon with which to target China, which is said to be a major supplier of illicit versions of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl sold on the streets of the US.
But while it is true that the opioid epidemic that has enveloped the US is a huge driver of crime across the country, and that many of the illegal drugs that have recently been fuelling the crisis originate from China, these are symptoms rather than causes of the problem. Many experts agree that the irresponsible over-prescribing of legitimate opioid medication, which peaked in the early part of this decade, is one pf the primary causes of the US opioid epidemic.
A propensity for US medics to hand out these types of drugs as though they were sweets resulted in many of their patients becoming addicted to the substances they were prescribed, a problem that was hugely exacerbated after the US government took steps in 2014 to crack down on the culture of over-prescribing, leaving those who had become hooked on legitimate medication with little alternative but to turn to illicit sources. Years later, major pharmaceutical firms including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma are now facing huge negligence lawsuits relating to the manner in which the drugs they sold contributed to the problem.
Yet despite the well-publicised and very grave consequences of the over-prescribing of these types of drugs in the US, evidence suggests the same mistakes are being repeated in other countries. Public Health England (PHE) has published a report that revealed around a quarter of all adults in England are taking prescription medication that they might find difficult to quit, including opioids, benzodiazepines and antidepressants.
The report found that in March of last year, half of those receiving a prescription for these types of medicines had been doing so continuously for at least 12 months, while up to 32% had being taking them for at least the past three years. The PHE study also revealed that opioids were more likely to be prescribed to patients living in the most deprived parts of the country than the least deprived.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Australia could be on track to witness a larger spike in opioid-related overdose deaths than the US as companies look to foreign markets outside of America to sell this type of medication. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, opioid overdose deaths across the country rose from 439 in 2006 to 1,119 in 2016.
Outside of the UK, alarm bells are also ringing across the rest of Europe, with a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warning in June that 22% of addicts entering drug treatment programmes in EU member states for an opioid-related problems now cite a licit or illicit synthetic opioid as their main issue as opposed to heroin. The EMCDDA said this suggested that medicines containing opioids are becoming a growing problem for those seeking treatment for drug addiction in the 28-nation bloc.
While some doctors complain that they often have little alternative but to prescribe these types of drugs to patients, it seems astonishing that other wealthy western nations could be sleepwalking into the type of opioid crisis that has ravaged the US over the past 10 years. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that the availability and use of illicit synthetic opioids such as fentanyl is rising across Europe and Australia, meaning that if these countries’ governments leave it too late to take the necessary measures to tackle the over-prescribing of such medicines, an army of addicts will be left with a ready alternative once their legitimate supply had been reduced or completely cut off.
It is of course possible that the US opioid epidemic was caused by a set of problems that were unique to America, but the patterns being seen in other western nations are beginning to look depressingly familiar.
Online games and apps aimed specifically at children and young people remain fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators
Whether or not children spend too much time staring at smartphones, games console screens, laptops and tablets is one of biggest concerns modern parents face. Part and parcel of this for many is an almost constant worry about the type of material their children might access online. In an attempt to make sure their sons and daughters do not stumble across threats while using the internet, parents are now able to avail themselves of a number of tools that promise to reduce the chances of their children being exposed to online harms, including ISP content filters and tracking software that monitors which sites young people visit on their devices.
In many cases, these types of solutions can lull parents into a false sense of security, creating the illusion that children will be safe while online so long as they are unable to access websites that might carry questionable content. Sadly, predators and paedophiles who target children on the internet have been doing so using connected apps and games aimed exclusively at children and young people for years, many of which typically appear to be quite harmless to parents. Despite this, the tech industry appears to remain at best relaxed about the threat online child abusers pose to their younger users, seemingly content to be doing the bare minimum to address the issue.
Last week, UK child protection charity the NSPCC urged Facebook not to encrypt Messenger accounts belonging to children unless the company could prove that doing so would not expose young people to online predators. The charity argued that it seemed peculiar that the firm would choose to actively introduce new technology that would make it harder for its own staff members and law enforcement agencies to identify instances in which young people might be exposed to online grooming.
Facebook has faced criticism in the past for failing to provide access to messages sent by perpetrators of major terrorist attacks, and could in all likelihood press on with its plans to encrypt Messenger, even though doing so could potentially put children and young people at risk. If the company makes such a decision, it will provide further ammunition to those who argue that big technology firms care little for the fate of children and young people who are groomed on their platforms. It is an argument that is hard not to have some sympathy with, given the fact that these multi-billion-dollar companies appear to be making little progress in the fight against online child sexual exploitation. If anything, the problem appears to be worsening, with regular media reports suggesting that child abusers are able to take advantage of online tools, many of which are aimed exclusively at children, with near impunity.
Back in February, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped lip-sync video app TikTok with a $5.7 million fine after discovering that the company had illegally collected personal information from children, and had made children’s profiles public by default, resulting in some being contained by adults. This came after the Indian government in April ordered Apple and Google to remove the app, which is owned by Chinese technology giant ByteDance, from their app stores over fears it was being used to spread pornographic material. In the UK, an investigation conducted by Sun Online in February revealed that paedophiles were suing TikTok to send sexually explicit messages to children as young as eight. Just months later in May, the Sunday Times reported that police in Britain were investigating three cases of child exploitation a day linked to Snapchat, with investigators warning that paedophiles had been using the app to groom children into sending indecent images of themselves.
Elsewhere, police in both Canada and the UK last year cautioned that Epic Games’ wildly popular third-person multiplayer shooter Fortnite was being used by paedophiles and sextortion scammers to groom children into committing sex acts and sending explicit images of themselves via social media. Highlighting the manner in which predators are able to use these platforms to target victims, the BBC reported in July that a man from Wales had been jailed for 10 years after being convicted of using gaming accounts and nine Facebook profiles to groom boys as young as seven.
But despite the regularity with which these types of stories appear, little seems to change. The big tech firms, with their almost bottomless pockets, seem wholly unable to get to grips with the issue. In the majority of cases, they act only when forced to do so, investing in child protection initiatives solely when ordered to by governments, or when the issue poses a risk of damaging their bottom lines. To many, these companies’ failure to act is nothing short of a betrayal of the children and young people who are targeted by predators online. But while it is certainly the case that all technology firms could do more to address internet child abuse in all its forms, it is particularly egregious that businesses that own online apps and services aimed specifically at children and young people appear so indifferent to the wellbeing and safety of their users.
Counterfeit e-cigarette products could trigger an epidemic of deadly vaping-related lung conditions
While the jury is still out as to whether using electronic cigarettes is safe over the longer term, the vast majority of experts have until recently almost unanimously agreed that vaping is far less harmful than smoking traditional tobacco products. While this largely continues to be the case, a growing amount of anecdotal evidence suggests vaping might not be quite as innocuous as was once thought. Earlier this month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the first death linked to e-cigarette use had been recorded in America, and also said it was investigating nearly 200 cases of severe lung illness in patients who were users of vaping products.
This week, NBC reported that the number e-cigarette-related lung illness cases recorded across the US is nearer to 300, and revealed that health officials in Milwaukee had advised members of the public to stop using all vaping products immediately. None of the cases of vaping-related lung conditions recorded in the US have so far been linked to any one device or liquid product, but e-cigarette sceptics will likely not be surprised at the suggestion that inhaling what is essentially a cocktail of chemicals might be harmful to people’s health.
It remains to be seen as to whether or not vaping is in and of itself dangerous, and if so, how severe that danger might be, but the cases the CDC is now investigating have come to light at a time of increasing reports of counterfeit vaping products being sold in retail outlets and online. In many countries, the e-cigarette market is poorly regulated, raising concerns about untested products containing unknown ingredients being sold to unsuspecting members of the public. But even in countries where rules around selling vaping products are strict, a growing market for counterfeit and illegally produced e-cigarette products could pose a very serious and growing risk to public health. In the US, CNBC reported this week that mostly Chinese-made fake pods for Juul e-cigarette products are flooding America, prompting former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to speculate that bogus vaping products could be behind the recent surge in lung conditions related to e-cigarette use.
Like counterfeit cigarettes, which are typically more carcinogenic than the genuine product and often contain harmful ingredients such as rat position, arsenic and pesticides, fake vaping devices and liquids are produced in unregulated and potentially unhygienic environments. Not only does this mean it is almost impossible to know what ingredients are truly in counterfeit e-cigarette products, but also that all manner of bacteria could have contaminated them during the production process, or while they are in storage or being distributed.
According to a report from the Washington Post, authorities in the US are currently working under the assumption that the recent spate of vaping-related lung illnesses across the country were caused by “adulterants” in products that purportedly contained THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. Investigators are said to be focussing particularly on products that are manufactured illegally or are sold in states where marijuana is still outlawed. In a recent feature article, Rolling Stone outlined several cases in which young people had developed serious lung conditions having been regular users of these types of products. The magazine noted that a liquid one of these patients had been using contained not only THC, but also Vitamin E, which is known to cause lipoid pneumonitis if inhaled.
While some commentators have appealed for calm after reporting around the recent rise in e-cigarette-related lung illnesses, arguing that dissuading people from using vaping products could hinder efforts to reduce smoking rates, the problem looks likely only to worsen if it truly is linked to the sale of counterfeit devices and liquids. The global e-cigarette market was worth nearly $28 billion last year, and is expected to grow to $75 billion by 2023, according to Euromonitor, making what is already an attractive prospect for organised criminals almost irresistible.
Highlighting the difficulty e-cigarette users can have when it comes to knowing what is really in the liquids they use with their devices, health officials in the UK warned in July that at least nine young people had required hospital treatment after using purported THC vape liquid that in reality contained new psychoactive cannabinoid Spice. This came after the US FDA warned a Chinese e-cigarette manufacturer not to sell vaping juice laced with erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra and Cialis. As a growing number of people continue to inhale substances such as these, some of whose effects on the human respiratory system are unknown, and criminals who care little for public health increasingly look to target the hugely profitable vaping market, it looks likely that cases of e-cigarette-related lung illnesses will quickly become a problem with which medical professionals find themselves far too familiar.
Weak and poorly enforced border control policies are costing migrants their lives
Authorities in Belgium this week revealed they had pulled the dead body of an Iraqi migrant out of the ocean after the man launched a doomed attempt to swim across the English Channel while wearing an improvised buoyancy vest made from plastic bottles. It is believed the man, who is said to have had an application for asylum turned down in Germany, set off from the northern shores of France before drowning, after which time currents washed his corpse up close to a wind farm off the coast of Zeebrugge. Carl Decaluwé, the Governor of West Flanders, said this was the first time Belgian coastguard officers had made such a discovery, but speculated that many migrants have likely lost their lives while attempting to reach the southern coast of England, even if their bodies have never been recovered.
After incidents such as these, many voices on the left react by calling out the supposed brutality of borders and the cruelty of most wealthy nations’ approach to immigration, oftentimes arguing that those who support such perceived evils have blood on their hands. In reality, it is a failure to enforce border controls and send a strong message that illegal immigration will not be tolerated that is costing migrants their lives.
While this may have been the first time authorities in Belgium have had to retrieve the dead body of a drowned migrant from the sea, it is unlikely to be the last. Since the beginning of this year, the number of migrants intercepted while attempting to cross the English Channel has rocketed, with nearly 1,500 being picked up by French and British border guards since then-UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared the situation an emergency back in December. Many of those who are caught in the small boats that migrants use while trying to reach Britain are Iranian, who have the funds to pay the people smuggling gangs that arrange such journeys, and are not fleeing a country that is currently wracked by conflict.
Despite the closure of the infamous Jungle migrant camp in Calais in October 2016 and the alleged heavy-handed manner in which police in France are said to deal with migrants who mass close to the country’s northern coastline, it seems that little is being done to prevent illegal migrants from getting this far. This is in spite of the fact that EU legalisation known as the Dublin Regulation stipulates that those wishing to claim asylum in the 28-nation bloc do so in the first country within its borders they reach. Many migrants who get to France will have passed through multiple safe countries in which they could have applied for asylum before doing so.
Further south, thousands of migrants continue to die every year while attempting to reach the EU while crossing the Mediterranean. Just days ago, it was reported that at least 40 migrants had gone missing presumed to have drowned after the vessel on which they were travelling capsized off the coast of Libya. While the numbers are well down on those that were witnessed at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, these types of incidents remain an almost weekly occurrence, so much so that they tend not to attract the type of media attention they once did.
The situation is much the same on the other side of the Atlantic, with migrants attempting to make the perilous journey to and then across the US/Mexico border. People around the world quite understandably reacted with horror back in June when a picture emerged of the dead bodies of a Salvadoran father and his daughter lying face down in a river that forms part of America’s border with its southern neighbour.
In all these cases, properly enforced border control policies would likely have prevented the deaths of these migrants. Brutal as some may see it, maintaining a system under which illegal migrants are routinely sent back to where they came from or are forced to adhere to local immigration and asylum rules already in place not only allows countries to control who is crossing their borders, but is also the best way of preventing people from making the types of hugely dangerous journeys outlined above. To put it bluntly, far fewer migrants would likely risk their lives attempting to travel illegally to nations in which they believe they will be able to access a better life if they know there is no doubt they would be sent back as soon as they arrive.
Over in Australia, Operation Sovereign Borders, under which migrants attempting to reach the country by boat from locations such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are turned back to where they came from, has greatly reduced the number of people who try to make such journeys, likely saving numerous lives in the process. A similar approach in Europe and the US could achieve these types of results. While it is of course vital that all nations are open to accepting those genuinely fleeing conflict or persecution, allowing border control regimes that are actively causing the deaths of migrants to remain in place is nothing short of moral cowardice.
- EU Commissioner for Human Rights calls on member states to protect migrants from people smugglers
- UK paedophile grooming gang member handed additional jail time for trolling victims online
- Police in Ohio arrest 104 people in major crackdown on sex trafficking
- Coalition of law enforcement agencies in the Philippines nab wildlife trader who evaded capture for years
- Farmer jailed for smuggling illicit garlic shipments into Australia
9 February 2018
9 February 2018
8 February 2018
28 November 2017
28 November 2017
Follow us on Twitter
Opinion4 weeks ago
Why drug trafficking cartels favour smuggling their illicit cargo in consignments of fruit
Articles4 weeks ago
LAX border officials seize fake luxury goods worth $3.5 million smuggled into US from Hong Kong
Articles2 weeks ago
Spanish police arrest major dark web cannabis dealer in Malaga
Articles2 weeks ago
Sniffer dog helps police locate 900kgs of cannabis smuggled into Spain from Morocco
Opinion3 weeks ago
Weak and poorly enforced border control policies are costing migrants their lives
Articles2 weeks ago
Counterfeit currency experts gather in France for Interpol conference on fake banknotes
Articles4 weeks ago
US citizens spent $150 billion on cannabis, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth in 2016
Articles1 week ago
Portuguese police smash Europe’s second-largest dark web counterfeit currency network