Opioid epidemic does not influence unemployment levels, researchers find

Despite conflicting information about the relationship between opioid use and national workforce levels, the opioid epidemic does not directly affect U.S. employment, according to research published in The Harvard Business Review.

Janet Currie, PhD, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton (N.J.) University, and Molly Schnell, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stanford (Calif.) Institute for Economic Policy Research, penned the article.

Here are four things to know:

1. It's long thought the opioid epidemic is causing the national workforce to shrink, due to people with opioid use disorder either losing their jobs or showing disinterest in joining the workforce. Numerous studies support this narrative, according to the authors, who cited a Princeton study showing 50 percent of unemployed prime-age white men took prescription opioids daily.

2. However, the unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in decades, according to Dr. Currie and Ms. Schnell. In addition, data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows about 85 percent of opioids prescribed to working age people are covered by private health insurance, most of which is provided through employers. While this information shows many of those taking opioids are employed, the authors note this data only considers opioids prescribed by physicians and not the percentage of employees who may obtain opioids from illegal means.

3. Dr. Currie and Ms. Schnell analyzed information on all opioid prescriptions filled at pharmacies nationwide between 2006-11 to assess any direct effects on employment. The data included information on gender, age group, residential zip code and public or private insurance companies associated with the patient filling the prescription.

4. The researchers conducted anthe data and found " no simple causal relationship between opioids and employment," according to the article. Dr. Currie and Ms. Schnell did identify a small link between opioid prescribing and employment changes for women with lower levels if education. This link is nonexistent for men. No systematic relationship was found for women in counties with higher education levels or in men.

"In short, while the opioid epidemic has caused wide-reaching devastation, aggregate employment appears not to be one of its victims. Furthermore, evidence suggests that poor economic conditions cannot be blamed for the crisis itself," the authors concluded. "What this means is that we must look at the opioid epidemic for what it is: a self-inflicted perfect storm that arose from a combination of newly available opioids, new attitudes about the importance of pain management, loose prescribing practices and a lack of professional accountability."

More articles on opioids:

Trump calls for federal suit against opioid makers, supplies

Trump administration seeks 10% production cut for 6 opioids

Physician- & organization-related initiatives effective at lowering opioid prescriptions

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