The Relative Economy and Drug Overdose Deaths

Epidemiology. 2020 Jul;31(4):551-558. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000001199.


Background: Overdose deaths increased exponentially in the United States to be the leading cause of adult injury deaths, and declining economic opportunity may contribute. To our knowledge, there has been no quantitative research into the impact of relative economic measures on overdose risk. Prior longitudinal studies on impact of socioeconomic conditions used fixed effects approaches that can result in biased estimates in the presence of time-varying confounders.

Methods: We estimated county-level longitudinal associations between drug overdose deaths and unemployment and labor-force nonparticipation rates by gender and racial/ethnic subgroup using longitudinal g-computation and the clustered bootstrap.

Results: We find evidence for associations between both overall and relative aspects of unemployment and labor-force nonparticipation and drug overdose mortality; patterns of associations differed, sometime qualitatively, across subgroups. For males across racial-ethnic groups, greater overall and relative unemployment rates were generally associated with greater overdose mortality in both the short and long terms [e.g., for white males, increasing the overall percentage of unemployed adults by 5% points in 2000, 2009, and 2015 is associated with an increase of 3.2 overdose deaths (95% confidence interval [CI] = -2.8, 14) in 2015, and increasing the ratio by 0.5 in 2000, 2009, and 2015 is associated with an increase of 9.1 overdose deaths (95% CI = 1.6, 24)].

Conclusions: These findings point to important complexity in how the economic and contextual landscape differentially shapes overdose risks, underscoring a need for increased understanding of the mechanisms operating for women and minority groups.