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Leon Kaye headshot

Study: Opioids Have Direct Impact on Men’s Participation in U.S. Labor Force

By Leon Kaye

According to a Princeton University economist, the opioid crisis could account for as much as 20 percent of the decline in American men’s participation in the labor force.

The study led by Alan Krueger, who was the Treasury Department’s chief economist during the Obama administration, also found 40 percent of prime-aged men (defined as those aged between 25 and 54) who are not currently working have said chronic pain prevents them from accepting a job for which they would otherwise be qualified.

In his analysis of data that goes back 15 years before the opioid crisis dominated headlines, Krueger found that this nationwide problem preceded the Great Recession – in fact, opioid prescriptions decreased between 2010 and 2015. But Krueger also concluded that the 10 counties with the highest rates of “deaths of despair” (alcohol, accidental overdoses and accidental poisonings) also had a far lower labor participation rate amongst prime aged men: 73 percent compared to the national average of 88 percent.

Furthermore, the convergence of aggressive marketing strategies launched by pharmaceutical companies and wide discrepancies in physician training has contributed to this ongoing health crisis. Krueger cited one Princeton University study that suggested doctors who graduated from the lowest-ranked medical schools gave out prescriptions for opioids at a rate 33 times higher than those who finished medical school at higher-ranked universities.

This study does not call out any of the leading drug companies by name for their complicity in the opioid crisis. Nevertheless, its findings show there are opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry to step up and partner closely with both government agencies and healthcare providers to work on solutions in order to reverse these trends. So far, years of increased opioid prescriptions, abuse and the current awareness have caused far more problems than solutions these drugs were supposed to offer. “Despite the massive rise in opioid prescriptions in the 2000s, there is no evidence that the incidence of pain has declined,” the study concluded. “In fact, the results presented here suggest a small upward trend in the incidence of pain for prime age [men not in the labor force] and unemployed men.”

While more drug companies say they are launching more programs to reverse the lingering effects of the opioid crisis, the reality has been that most companies have been able to evade responsibility for their role in exacerbating this public health problem.

Krueger’s analysis calls for far more aggressive efforts in order to tackle the opioid crisis so more men at their peak years of productivity can work full-time again and prevent the labor participation rate from falling even further. Better pain management tactics, made possible by expanded health insurance coverage and more preventable care, says Krueger, could also help staunch this stubborn problem.

Other studies have linked the opioid epidemic and the decrease of participation in the workforce. Earlier this year, a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study concluded that as a county’s unemployment rate increases one percentage point, emergency room visits connected to opioid abuse rise 7 percent while the death rate related to this crisis climbs 3.6 percent. Even the financial industry has become more concerned about the impact this crisis has had on the economy: Goldman Sachs has concluded that despite an overall strong jobs market, the opioid epidemic is sidelining far too many American workers.

Nevertheless, the personal toll the opioid crisis has exacted on society needs to be addressed before these citizens affected by this epidemic can become productive members of the workforce again. The statistics alone scream for a rethink in how society approaches drug abuse.

A generation ago, deaths by HIV, car accidents and guns far outpaced deaths from drug overdoses. But as the New York Times has shown, deaths from overdoses have accelerated rapidly since the turn of the century and have soared over 50,000 annually. Businesses, and not just those affiliated with the healthcare sector, will have to take the lead and help reverse the despair that has torn apart many communities. After all, municipalities are overwhelmed by the problem and the federal government has all but refused to address the crisis.

Image credit: KOMUnews/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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