New Data Shows Availability, Not Poverty, Caused Opioid Epidemic


    The surge of Americans falling victim to the nation’s opioid epidemic isn’t because of economic disparity, new data shows. According to research conducted by the University of Virginia, the most likely cause of the opioid epidemic is drug availability.

    Current policy directed at fixing the opioid epidemic has been based on the “deaths of despair” hypothesis suggested in a 2017 paper by Princeton University. In the paper, authors Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue the rise in deaths from drug overdose, alcohol, and suicide is due to economic disadvantages.

    “Deaths of despair come from a long-standing process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree,” wrote Case and Deaton. The authors also claim that prescription opioids fanned the flames of this despair.

    However, a 2018 paper written by the University of Virginia’s Christopher Ruhm claims the link between opioid addiction and areas of economic decline is misleading. The cause of the epidemic, Ruhm argues, is the changing drug environment.

    Ruhm points out the differences in age and gender when comparing overdose demographics between the 2000s and 2010s. According to Bloomberg, the economic problems faced by the working class remained the same between 2005 and 2015. However, while women and older men were the key victims of opioids between 2005 and 2010, young men were the trending victims of overdose between 2010 and 2015.

    “Individuals self-medicating for their ‘despair’ would simply switch to the newly more available types of drugs,” Ruhm said.

    Ruhm also pointed to the absence of an opioid crisis in Europe despite the EU’s more severe economic problems. According to data from 2015, up to 52,404 Americans died from drug overdose compared to the 7,587 EU citizens. The majority of these overdoses took place in Northern Europe despite countries like Spain and Greece suffering more greatly during the economic crisis.

    Available substances also play a large part in the opioid epidemic. For instance, approximately 591,000 people suffered from heroin addiction in 2015, but heroin only accounted for 24% of 2017 overdose deaths. In comparison, heroin was the cause of up to 81% of overdose deaths in Europe thus far in 2018.

    Because Europe is closer to heroin-producing nations, this data shows that availability plays a large role in addiction. However, heroin is becoming an increasing problem in the U.S. with the introduction of synthetic opioids.

    To compare to the nation’s drunk driving problem (alcohol is widely available), one person is injured in a drunk driving accident every two minutes. Up to 91 Americans die from opioid overdose every day.

    Americans are also more likely to be prescribed opioid medications, which is one of the leading causes of addiction, because of the nation’s culture of pain management. For instance, Germany has been seeing a rise in opioid prescriptions, but massage is considered an effective way to reduce pain by up to 92% of massage participants.

    That being said, it isn’t the economic disparities of places like Georgia, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. that are causing a rise in opioid addiction but rather the increasing availability of the drugs. For this reason, both Ruhm and Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg, urge policy-makers to focus on reducing the supply of these drugs and to assist American citizens in their recovery.