The Strength of Opiods

As opioid abuse has risen across the United States in the past few years, the epidemic has been covered and humanized in a number of ways, from deep personal narratives to more character-driven reviews of innovative solutions.  One data visualization from the Washington Post from October 2017 takes a different approach for its readers, by comparing different opioids that are currently being abused with one that is more commonly-prescribed: morphine.

The visualizations equate each box with a single dose of morphine.

One-by-one, the article ties information on the uses, historical prescription patterns, and role in the current wave of abuse for drugs such as oxycodone, methadone, heroin, and fentanyl with simple graphics to compare their strength to that of morphine. In doing so, the article attempts to visually reinforce the gravity of each drug’s potency, both on drug users and the state of the crisis.

This goal is most clearly illustrated in the final drug profiled by the article, carfentanil. The article breaks its established physical structure of visual-followed-by-text, and embeds two striking stories of carfentanil’s use as an elephant tranquilizer and bio-weapon over the visualizations 10,000 pink squares (to represent that it is 10,000 times stronger than morphine).

This graphic takes up more than twice the space of the rest of the article to effectively convey carfentanil’s extreme and dangerous effects.

While the visualizations effectively conveys its point using striking colors and a simple symbology, it misses its mark by assuming its readers have some understanding (and perhaps experience) with the strength of morphine. In fact, at no point in the article is ‘strength’ precisely defined, although it is mentioned that this unit of comparison is borrowed from medicine and law enforcement. However, for those without a clear baseline of the pain-mitigating and euphoric effects of morphine, it is difficult to fully understand the scale of comparison.

Source: “See how deadly street opioids like ‘elephant tranquilizer’ have become,” by Dan Keating and Samuel Granados, Washington Post, October 25, 2017.