Recent research gives support to the link between economic distress and certain kinds of self-destructive health behaviors (Source: “The deadly connection between prescription painkillers and the economy,” Washington Post, March 3, 2017).
In a draft of their research released Monday, Alex Hollingsworth, Christopher J. Ruhm and Kosali Simon find that rates of opioid deaths grew faster in countries where the unemployment rate climbed faster than average. They analyzed health records from 1999 to 2014, comparing how overdose rates changed in places where the unemployment rate ticked upward unexpectedly, and places where it ticked downward unexpectedly.
A one percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, above and beyond the trend, was associated with an approximate 3.6 percent increase in the rate of fatal opioid overdoses, and a 7 percent increase in emergency room visits related to opioid overdoses.
The results run counter to previous research on alcohol abuse, which found that people tend to buy less alcohol in bad times, and more alcohol in good times. In fact, there’s a well-documented correlation between economic growth and higher death rates. When the economy is booming, people tend to behave in more risky ways, and pollution also increases. When the economy is in recession, both those risk factors abate.
Ruhm and his colleagues believe the explanation might lie in the rising incidence of opioid addiction and suicide, which both tend to spike during stressful times. And, while overall alcohol use doesn’t increase during an economic downturn, researchers have found that people are more likely to engage in binge drinking.