Wisconsin death toll

    “Sunlit Avenue” by DerekL is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Life expectancy is falling in Wisconsin, as it is nationwide, a new report published on Monday found, and death rates are rising — especially for Wisconsin’s black residents.

    The United States has not seen a national life expectancy downturn for more than a century, the report notes. The last time life expectancy dropped was between1915 and 1918, a period that included World War I and a global influenza epidemic.

    The current downturn is largely attributable to drugs — particularly opioids — as well as alcohol and suicide, according to the brief report, produced by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

    Life expectancy for babies born in Wisconsin has been slowly declining for the last six years, according to data from the state Department of Health Services. Although Wisconsin babies born between 2015 and 2017 still have a higher life expectancy, at 80 years, than the national average of 78.6 years, annual death rates “show Wisconsin losing ground in some areas,” the report states. 

    And among Wisconsin’s black residents, the overall mortality rate is way out of line with the rest of the nation, having gone up by 24% from 1999 to 2017, “even as mortality among all black Americans declined by nearly 6%,” the report states. “This shift brings Wisconsin, which two decades ago had a black mortality rate well below the national average, much closer to the national rate.”

    In the same period of time, the state’s overall death rate from drug use has grown fourfold, and opioid deaths have skyrocketed — to 901 in 2017 from 65 in 1999.

    “Wisconsin’s patterns of opioid deaths depart from the perception in some quarters that the opioid crisis primarily afflicts white rural and small-town communities,” the report states.

    The report paints a complex picture of opioid deaths along racial lines.

    Wisconsin’s black residents died from opioid-related causes at nearly twice the rate of blacks nationwide in 2017, the report found, and at a significantly higher rate than the overall opioid-death rate for people of all races.

    At the same time, however, white residents of Milwaukee County had the highest rate  of opioid deaths in the state. In Milwaukee County, the opioid death rate for all races — 24.9 per 100,000 — was more than double the statewide rate. And among “large central metro counties” nationwide, it was nearly two-and-a-half times larger than the rate for the nation’s 63 metropolitan counties as defined by the US Census Bureau.

    The report concludes by urging greater efforts to curb drug and alcohol abuse.



    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.


    1. Please specify which “opiods” as this broad definition includes safe, effective prescription pain relief AND highly dangerous street fentanyl. The former being included in the death toll has caused much pain, suffering, and stigma to patients who actually need these meds while doing NOTHING to keep heroin and Chinese fentanyl from killing people

    2. I’ve seen people who are denied opioids who really need them for pain relief while they have to jump through hoops in order to get meds they won’t abuse. I agree with Tammy Malik, we’re punishing legitimate users while expending efforts to stop the importation of deadly illegal drugs. Perhaps if we put more efforts into interdiction, treatment, and education instead of immigration the outcome would change? Then again, hoping this administration has the capacity or courage to make correct decisions is unlikely.

      Another answer to slowing opioid use is medical and even “recreational” marijuana. Why are the white GOP legislators in this state so afraid of cannabis? I’m sure the vast majority of them use alcohol which is more physically harmful than marijuana. If we can’t change their minds on this issue, then we have to vote them out and get people in office who care about the citizens.


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