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date: 02 July 2022

Economic Studies on the Opioid Crisis: Costs, Causes, and Policy Responseslocked

Economic Studies on the Opioid Crisis: Costs, Causes, and Policy Responseslocked

  • Johanna Catherine Maclean, Johanna Catherine MacleanEconomics, Temple University
  • Justine Mallatt, Justine MallattU. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
  • Christopher J. RuhmChristopher J. RuhmFrank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia
  •  and Kosali SimonKosali SimonSchool of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

Summary

The United States has experienced an unprecedented crisis related to the misuse of and addiction to opioids. As of 2018, 128 Americans die each day of an opioid overdose, and total economic costs associated with opioid misuse are estimated to be more than $500 billion annually. The crisis evolved in three phases, starting in the 1990s and continuing through 2010 with a massive increase in use of prescribed opioids associated with lax prescribing regulations and aggressive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry. A second phase included tightening restrictions on prescribed opioids, reformulation of some commonly misused prescription medications, and a shift to heroin consumption over the period 2010 to 2013. Since 2013, the third phase of the crisis has included a movement toward synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, and a continued tightening of opioid prescribing regulations, along with the growth of both harm reduction and addiction treatment access policies, including a possible 2021 relaxation of buprenorphine prescribing regulations.

Economic research, using innovative frameworks, causal methods, and rich data, has added to our understanding of the causes and consequences of the crisis. This body of research identifies intended and unintended impacts of policies designed to address the crisis. Although there is general agreement that the causes of the crisis include a combination of supply- and demand-side factors, and interactions between them, there is less consensus regarding the relative importance of each. Studies show that regulations can reduce opioid prescribing but may have less impact on root causes of the crisis and, in some cases, have spillover effects resulting in greater use of more harmful substances obtained in illicit markets, where regulation is less possible. There are effective opioid use disorder treatments available, but access, stigma, and cost hurdles have stifled utilization, resulting in a large degree of under-treatment in the United States.

How challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may intersect with the opioid crisis is unclear. Emerging areas for future research include understanding how societal and health care systems disruptions affect opioid use, as well as which regulations and policies most effectively reduce potentially inappropriate prescription opioid use and illicit opioid sources without unintended negative consequences.

Subjects

  • Health, Education, and Welfare Economics
  • Law and Economics
  • Public Economics and Policy

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