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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Prompts a Question: What’s a Life Worth?

A friend posted this bit of data on his Facebook page this morning: “382 died of heroin overdoses—more than one a day on average—in New York City in 2013; and we heard almost nothing about it till the overdose death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

We all know that society values some lives more than others, but when a city is losing residents at that rate, where are the public health officials, the medical examiner’s office, someone, some place to point out there’s a problem?

New York City is huge. No doubt. But losing more than a life a day to this one issue, in fact to this one drug, does this not raise an eyebrow?

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a celebrated actor. He was a devoted father, from all accounts. Colleagues said he was one of the good guys. Certainly, though, he was not the only such person, the only good guy, out of all the heroin deaths in New York City.

And there’s the rub.

Hoffman may have been singular in many ways as an actor, but not as a human being. Or perhaps, the point is that all those who OD’d were singular in some way to their friends, families and colleagues. They were not all low-down criminals and thugs. Some, no doubt, were struggling to stay clean. Others may have been functioning addicts, going to work and taking care of their families and just got caught out there.

We’ll never know, of course, because they weren’t famous and their stories won’t be told. Authorities did not rush out to find the dealers who sold them the drugs. There won’t be extensive autopsies to say with absolute clarity what exactly killed them.

It is not that Hoffman’s case doesn’t deserve that kind of care and attention. It’s that kind of service should be extended to everyone.

According to The New York Times, heroin-related overdose deaths increased 84 percent from 2010 to 2012, after several years of decline. How many more have to die before these deaths are seen as an epidemic? Hoffman’s death made us see the disparity; is it enough to spark official action?

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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