Jan. 10, 2018
SOURCE: Harriet Torry – Wall Street Journal

Economic conditions may play less of a role in the scourge of recent opioid overdose deaths than the easy availability and low cost of the illicit drugs, according to a new paper.

The study by University of Virginia economist Christopher Ruhm disputes the idea that areas in economic decline experience a higher rate of “deaths of despair,” and argues “the drug environment rather than economy is the key driver in rising drug fatalities.”

. . . Mr. Ruhm’s new paper takes a different look at that hypothesis. He argues that changes in the “drug environment” are a main cause of rising overdose deaths. An example of those changes is the type of drugs driving higher overdose deaths over time. The paper noted a rise in opioid analgesic mortality from 1999 to 2011, followed by “explosive growth in illicit opioid death rates after 2010.” Mr. Ruhm also noted supply-side changes, like opioid prescribing patterns in the U.S. and the introduction of new drugs such as OxyContin in 1996.

Counties in economic decline from 1999 to 2015 did experience larger increases in drug, suicide or alcohol mortality than those with more robust economic growth, the paper found. “However, the relationship was fairly weak and mostly due to county characteristics spuriously correlated with changes in economic conditions,” Mr. Ruhm argues.