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Study shows no link between unemployment and drug abuse

By Tom Jackson • Jan 31, 2019 at 5:00 PM

It looks like Ohio can’t use its economy as an excuse for the state’s drug addiction problem.

A new paper by scholars at Princeton University — “U.S. Employment and Opioids: Is There a Connection?” — determined there is no link between high unemployment and high rates of opioid use.

Ohio has the second-worst overdose drug death rate in 2017, behind only West Virginia, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released late last year.

Ohio’s unemployment rate tends to be higher than the national rate. Ohio had a 4.6 percent unemployment rate in December, compared to a national rate of 3.9 percent. Erie County’s unemployment rate in December was 6.2 percent.

There’s been a popular narrative that drug addiction has taken hold in depressed economic areas and “Rust Belt” states, but Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the director of Princeton's Center for Health and Wellbeing, wondered if it was really true.

She and two other Princeton scholars, Jonas Jin and Molly Schnell, carried out a study using county-level opioid prescription rates and unemployment rates, using data from 2006 to 2014.

The study found no evidence that there is a causal relationship between economic conditions and opioid abuse.

Looking in the other direction, the researchers found no evidence that opioid use by men affects the unemployment rate. It found that opioid use by women actually made women more likely to have a job, although the effect was small.

Currie said she’d seen the narratives that people are in despair because they don’t have jobs and that’s why they take drugs.

“I thought I should take a look at that,” she said.

The research appears to show there isn’t a strong relationship between changes in opioid use and changes in employment, she said.

Currie said she’s pleased with the outcome of the study because she didn’t like the narrative that the drug problem can be blamed on problems with the economy.

“I think it’s kind of a copout,” she said.

While every government wants to help create jobs, blaming the drug problem on the economy suggests that no special policies dealing with drugs are needed.

In fact, there’s quite a bit of “low hanging fruit” for policymakers who want to reduce drug overdose deaths, said Currie, who suggested three measures.

First, Ohio and other states should use the prescription drug monitoring system to find out which doctors are making lots of money by prescribing too many pain drug medications, she said.

A doctor in Staten Island, New York, recently was arrested after neighbors complained that people were lined up day and night to obtain drugs, Currie said. Use of the monitoring system would have identified the doctor earlier, she said.

Second, there’s plenty of evidence by now that the use of drug-assisted treatment for addicts — using drugs that reduce an addict’s cravings — is more effective in saving lives than 12-step, total abstinence programs. Public officials should move policy more toward drug assisted treatment, Currie said.

Third, the drug rehabilitation industry needs to be more strongly regulated.

There is a big difference between well-run rehabilitation facilities and ones that are managed by people who aren’t qualified, Currie said.

“A lot of addicts die after they get out of rehab,” she said.

It can be difficult for ordinary people to figure out where their loved ones should go, she said.

Quality rankings typically aren’t available, she said.

“Try figuring out which ones are the good operators. The state is not helping,” Currie said.

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