Understanding the major drivers of the U.S. opioid epidemic is considered essential to fighting the crisis. One theory widely reported in the news media holds that job loss and depressed economic conditions have fueled overdose “deaths of despair” in certain regions.

However, in a recent working paper, UVA researcher Christopher Ruhm presents evidence that macroeconomic conditions are not, in fact, a major driver of opioid overdose deaths. Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, compared mortality data from counties across the U.S. from 1999 to 2015 with data about local economic conditions and argued that the availability (and, in some cases, low cost) of opioids has been a far more significant driver of the crisis.

Thus, Ruhm’s research suggests, public policy responses focusing on improving economic conditions for distressed regions may prove ineffective in combating opioid use and overdose deaths. Ruhm’s research is presented in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled “Deaths of Despair or Drug Problems?” issued in January 2018.