Ten Leading Government and Corporate Causes of Death
Every year the Centers for Disease Control publishes the US leading causes of death.
● Heart disease: 597,689
● Cancer: 574,743
● Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 138,080
● Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 129,476
● Accidents (unintentional injuries): 120,859
● Alzheimer’s disease: 83,494
● Diabetes: 69,071
● Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,476
● Influenza and Pneumonia: 50,097
● Intentional self-harm (suicide): 38,364
● Total Number of Death in 2010 2,468,435
However, the Journal of the American Medical Association over a decade ago came up with a more informative list.
Actual Causes of Death in the United States in 1990 and 2000
Actual Cause No. (%) in 1990* No. (%) in 2000 Tobacco 400 000 (19) 435 000 (18.1) Poor diet and physical inactivity 300 000 (14) 400 000 (16.6) Alcohol consumption 100 000 (5) 85 000 (3.5) Microbial agents 90 000 (4) 75 000 (3.1) Toxic agents 60 000 (3) 55 000 (2.3) Motor vehicle 25 000 (1) 43 000 (1.8) Firearms 35 000 (2) 29 000 (1.2) Sexual behavior 30 000 (1) 20 000 (0.8) Illicit drug use 20 000 (Ͻ1) 17 000 (0.7) Total 1,060,000 (50) 1,159 000 (48.2)
Another way to look at the leading causes of death in the United States is to look at government and corporate contributions to death. Unfortunately, research and government statistics are inadequate. For some issues, they can only be indirectly estimated. The numbers below show the largest categories where corporations or government inaction play a role. In cases where there is inadequate data, these numbers don’t represent an estimate of the total number of preventable deaths.
Leading Annual Causes of Death
? = Estimate is uncertain; + = Probably an underestimate
● 450,000? Preventable Medical-Related Deaths per year and as many as one million injuries occur as a result of medical errors and lack of health insurance. Deaths from lack of health insurance (about 50,000 per year) should decrease as a result of the health care law.
A lack of hand washing between patients is believed to be the largest single contributor to mortality (see above video). Additional deaths could be avoided through stronger safety regulations associated with the use of medications and more health care product safety testing. Weak enforcement and weak or non-existent regulations are part of the problem. Some have argued that using the Affordable Health Care Act medical record system to give physicians mandatory pop-warnings could prevent many medication errors but many believe the current piecemeal computer system being implemented at hospitals gives too many warnings and therefore may waste time or distract physicians. Other countries and the Veterans Administration have had national standardized systems for many years. Instead of using these systems, each hospital has hired their own company to produce a unique system for each hospital in the United States.
The US uncontrolled diabetes rate is seven times higher than Spain’s. Treatment for chronic conditions is average. For example, survival from breast cancer is average compared to other developed countries. Treatment for newborns is substandard. Potential years of life lost is the fourth worst among developed countries and the US life-expectancy is 51st in the world – twelve years behind the top rated country. On many important indicators of quality of life (e.g., ability to function within the community), the US conducts no research so we simply don’t know how the US is doing compared to other countries.
● 443,000 Tobacco-Related Deaths occur per year because tobacco is addictive and contains many ingredients that have been found to predict premature disease and death. Sale of addictive and deadly products violates laws and a constitutional provision relating to protecting the public from harm. Nevertheless, congress has given tobacco companies an exemption.
Cigarette smoking costs more than $193 billion (i.e., $97 billion in lost productivity plus $96 billion in health care expenditures) per year. Second hand smoke adds another ten billion per year. However, tobacco companies are not required to pay for these costs. This represents a transfer of wealth from smokers and second hand to tobacco companies. Less dangerous alternatives to smoking such as the smokeless cigarette were developed decades ago.
● 430,000 Deaths from Lack of Exercise Recent research has been conducted outside the United so this estimate may be an underestimate because the obesity problem is greater in the U.S. World estimates suggest that lack of exercise is a leading cause of death on par with tobacco. These deaths are not believed to be the result of laziness but work pressures that create fatigue and don’t give people sufficient time to exercise. Also, the health care industry has made it confusing and expensive to find the best ways to exercise and to understand it’s importance.
● 400,000 Obesity Obesity statistics overlap with physical activity and diet so these numbers cannot be added together. In 2001, government research put the estimate of obesity related deaths at 300,000, as the epidemic has grown in the past decade, an additional 100,000 deaths per year have been added in just one decade. The cost of obesity is over a $100 billion annually. Corporations who make foods that contribute to obesity don’t pay for these costs.
Overwork, stress and poverty are causes of obesity. We all pay for these costs through increased health care costs and lost time at work through more illnesses associated with obesity. This represents another transfer of wealth toward fattening food manufacturers. Cheaper food tends to cause obesity so the poor are more likely to eat these foods and become obese. Modern lifestyles are also associated with obesity and those lifestyles are heavily encouraged by corporations.
● 200,000? Deaths From Poor Diets That Are Not Caused By Obesity This is a very indirect figure. The British estimate that poor diets cause 70,000 deaths per year. Only about 30,000 of the 70,000 diet deaths can be attributed to obesity. The U.S. figure is estimated by adjusting for the larger U.S. population.
This figure may be an underestimate because there are no good estimates for the number killed by food safety problems. Although food safety laws have recently been upgraded in the U.S., many felt the new law is weak, fails to protect consumers and believe the Obama administration is failing to uphold the law.
Low dietary omega-3 fatty acids may account for as many as 84,000 per year. According to the same source, high dietary trans fatty acids may cause another 82,000 per year. However, these two estimates don’t subtract out obesity related deaths. Their is controversy regarding most diet related research. For example, the CDC estimates that 28,000 die each year from excessive salt intake whiles others have put the figure as high as 102,000 deaths per year. Again, these two estimates don’t subtract out the obesity related deaths. Poor diets can be prevented by regulating the food industry (e.g., putting less salt, more omega-3, less sugar and less trans fats in foods) .
● 85,000 Deaths From Alcoholism Many alcohol related deaths could be avoided by the prevention of and early treatment of alcoholism. Therefore, vigorous programs to prevent and aggressively treat alcoholism could prevent most of these deaths. In addition, drunk driving laws are still unevenly enforced.
The economic and societal costs of alcoholism are 225 billion per year. Equally astonishing is that the alcohol distributors don’t bear the societal costs. Again the public pays for this and that represents another transfer of wealth.
● 80,000? Pollution Related Deaths. It’s estimated that there are 70,000 pollution related deaths occur in the U.S. that cost the U.S. economy $150 billion per year. Air pollution accounts for about 70,000 deaths per year. It’s estimated that 30,000 deaths are the result of coal air pollution. However, this figure doesn’t account for deaths associated with Parkinson’s (22,032 per year – indirect deaths from Parkinson’s) which most researchers suspect is associated caused by an unknown toxin. About 10,000 die from water pollution. Most estimates do not include all aspects of pollution so it’s almost certain that the number of deaths is an underestimate. The use of green energy alternatives would avoid these deaths.
● 65,000? Deaths From Work-Related Stress Work-related stress costs businesses and individuals by creating short-term immune related illness and long-term chronic diseases such as heart disease. Unfortunately, the US government hasn’t made research in this area a priority so exact estimates are unknown. In Britain which has a population that’s less than 1/4 the size of the U.S. population, research suggests that stress, anxiety and depression cause 13.4 million sick days per year while 12.3 million sick days are caused by muscle-related problems (view infographic).
The U.S. 65,000 deaths per year estimate is from an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2000 Volume 90, pages 541–545. Work strain and stress have been more extensively studied in Europe where more vacation and less overtime hours is the norm. Research shows that avoiding overwork can significantly reduce workplace injuries (see below).
● 59,000 Workplace Injuries and Diseases The US government estimates that 59,000 deaths occur from occupational injuries and diseases costing an estimated $250 billion per year. However, others believe this estimate to low. Europe has prevented some deaths from occurring by developing functional worker compensation systems, wage replacement laws, preventing abuses in medical treatment, strengthened workplace safety laws and enforcement, requiring a chemical to be proven safe before it is used, passing criminal liability laws for corporate officers, supporting stronger unions and giving unions support to uncover safety problems. It’s unclear how many deaths could be avoided because there is no recent comparable data with Europe. The US rates are higher than Europe but comparable data is old. It’s clear the U.S. has far more workplace injuries. Britain reported 175 fatal injuries last year while the US reported 4,609.
● 55,000 preventable deaths from violence The government estimates there are 55,000 deaths from suicides or homicides each year. The US had 38,364 suicides in 2010. Last year there were 6,575 Veteran suicides and 349 active duty suicides (a new record) which many believe were caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disoder (PTSD). Many believe lengthy combat missions and multiple tours of duty produce PTSD. 103 to 330 thousand veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been diagnosed with PTSD.
US politics have prevented actions to protect citizens from gun violence. Among developed countries, the US has the highest homicide rate – more than 20 times the average for developed countries. Waiting periods for firearms reduce firearm sales but have proven effective in reducing homicide and suicide rates. Firearm deaths from both suicides and homicides accounted for 32,163 deaths in 2011.
Violence has multiple causes. In addition, to gun industry opposition to gun control, experts agree that media portrayals of violence increase US violence rates.
Gun and media deaths cost consumers billions each year but these companies do not pay for these deaths which represents another transfer of wealth. For profit substandard mental health services is another reason given for higher homicide rates.
Another contributing factor is educational and workplace practices promoted by corporations that increase violence.
The US police force has been criticized for its use of deadly force which is higher than other developed countries. There were 387 killings in 2010.
Last year, the military reported 311 deaths due to causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most violent deaths are preventable in some way. Violence experts believe dramatic reductions are possible. Our 55,000 estimate is based upon a 90% reduction in overall violence which would still give the U.S. a higher homicide rate than many countries.
● 35,900 Consumer Product Related Deaths occurred in 2008 which is the last year that data is available. A related consumer product death doesn’t necessarily mean that the product was the primary cause. It just means the product was associated with the death. Falls, fires and poisonings were the largest categories.
The consumer system in the U.S. has a number of problems with it. First, it assumes people pay attention to recalls when most of the time people are not aware of recalls announced on consumer products websites. Second, the approach taken doesn’t use approaches developed by industries that improve quality control. Third, incentives are after-the-fact. Lawsuits and fines occur after someone is injured. Inspections are only done for certain categories of products. Home safety inspections after the furniture has arrived would be useful for high risk groups such as the elderly. Transparency and incentives for safety (e.g., tax breaks for good safety records) are lacking. There is inadequate safety testing of consumer products. Unfortunately, the US Consumer Products Safety Division makes no estimates about the potential for death reduction. Finally, research to identify solutions and safety research on consumer products is lacking because corporations don’t have to cooperate with researchers.
● 17,600 preventable non-alcohol related traffic deaths 30,196 traffic deaths occurred in 2010 and estimates are that this number will increase. About 10,228 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2010 and these deaths were included in the alcohol related death category and so they are excluded here.
Traffic related injuries in the US are three times as high as Europe when in the past more Europeans died. .Experts believe the rate could be brought back down by putting health promotion efforts into practice that influence economic, organizational, policy, and school/community action. Unlike some other leading causes of death, traffic safety has been thoroughly researched and many prevention solutions have been discovered including lowering speed limits in high-risk areas, blocking cell phone use for drivers, capping speed limits for large vehicles, forcing car manufactures to make cars that can’t go over maximum speed limits or using computer systems in cars to ticket people speed, and lowing the maximum speed limit back down to 55 miles per hour. Drugs other than alcohol (e.g., marijuana and cocaine) are involved in about 18% of motor vehicle driver deaths. Improved drug screening for individuals driving under the influence of something other than alcohol could avoid some of these deaths. Community approaches include better city planning to reduce traffic times and more public transportation.
According to government reports nationwide, sustained, and frequent sobriety checkpoints to detect drunk drivers — 1,500- 3,000 lives, Systematic (not automated) speed enforcement — 1,000 to 2,000 lives, Universal motorcycle helmet laws — 450 lives and Increasing seat belt use from 85 percent to 90 percent — 1,200 lives. Improving child occupant protections and, enacting primary-enforcement safety-belt laws could also help save lives.
It’s estimated that the prevention of all traffic accidents could save the US $518 billion per year. Bringing our traffic accident rate down to Britain’s would save about 20,000 lives per year. The 17,600 estimate was arrived at by cutting out the alcohol related deaths and adjusting from population size.
Note. The preceding estimates are for US citizen deaths. Americans also kill people in other countries. For example, US tobacco interests are partly responsible for more than 5 million deaths worldwide per year and the US has been involved in several wars. Perhaps as many as 40% of all deaths in the world are the result of pollution and the U.S. is one of the world’s largest polluters.
If you would like to live a long and happy life, focus on diet and exercise and avoid bad habits such as excessive alcohol use and tobacco. In addition, you should be an advocate for green energy and public health care that avoids roadblocks to safer medical practices. Advocating for more European-like policies that involve tighter controls on corporate power and promote workplace safety, consumer protection and a more peaceful society would also contribute your life-expectancy and the life-expectancy of other U.S. citizens.
TIR has discussed elsewhere why the government and corporations don’t implement policies that would improve life-expectancy.
The total number of deaths in the U.S. in 2010 was 2,468,435 while the total number of estimated preventable deaths is 2.2 million. This estimate is somewhat high because in some cases preventable solutions are possible but perhaps not desirable. For example, some would argue that we shouldn’t stop the sale of tobacco products because it may cause a black market or be cruel to current smokers. Nevertheless, most deaths would be prevented by such a ban. For example, prohibition was a public health success even though it was policy failure.
Given the dearth of research in several area estimates (e.g., workplace injury reduction) may be inaccurate. Similarly, many solutions for preventing medical errors are simple and should work. However, it’s unknown if they could prevent all medical mistakes from occurring.
Finally, it’s impossible to accurately untangle, the contributions of obesity, exercise and diet. There are only rough estimates based upon a limited number of studies.
Mortality is considered a crude method for assessing health priorities. For example, medical errors are associated with complex cases where life-expectancy may be greatly shortened. In contrast, consumer product failures can kill at any age. Given the lack of data, it isn’t possible to estimate the number of years of life lost for each category but that would be a better estimate of societal costs than the annual death rate. Also, some conditions such as alcoholism are associated with greater societal costs even if the mortality rate is lower.
by Todd Miller
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