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Factors from Weather to Farm Income May Be Contributing to Opioid Epidemic, Penn State Study Says

by on January 25, 2018 5:00 AM

A variety of factors that aren't often part of the discussion may be influencing the ongoing problem of opioid abuse and overdoses in rural areas, according to a study by a Penn State economist.

The study looked at the relationship between socioeconomic variables and opioid overdoses and found correlations involving such factors as extreme weather and farm income, Stephan Goetz, Penn State professor of agricultural and regional economics, and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development said in a news release.

The overprescribing of opioid painkillers over the past few decades is considered to have spurred the epidemic, but other factors are playing a role in contributing to it.

They found that a higher number of natural disasters -- primarily weather-related events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes -- experienced in a county correlated with an increase in opioid overdoses. In turn, if climate change produces more extreme weather patterns, it could have an effect on the opioid crisis, Goetz said.

The study also found that for each $10,000 reduction in farm income, opioid overdoses increased by 10 percent from a national average of 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people to 11.2 deaths per 100,000. Opioid-related deaths are also on the rise in rural areas.

"Our results confirm that economic factors, including income especially and unemployment, as well as population density — or rurality — are important," Goetz said. "As we are controlling for economic factors, population density appears to play an independent role in accounting for the disparate death rates."

Goetz added that it's important to consider the size of the farming population and to cautiously interpret the study's data

"We are giving each county the same weight in our statistical analysis and the farming population is not that big — it's about 1 or 2 percent of the U.S. population," said Goetz. "But, there could be a spillover effect — if the farm income declines, the rest of the rural economy suffers."

Goetz said the opioid crisis is a far-reaching problem that "cuts across social, economic and political lines." Opioid-related deaths cost the U.S. an estimated $432 billion in 2015, according to the study.

The research yielded some positive signs, however, as overdoses among younger people appear to be declining. The study also found that the self-employed had lower rates of overdose.

The higher number of opioid deaths in rural areas could potentially be related to less access to mental health facilities and possibly a perceived stigma for seeking out mental health help.

"There are far fewer mental-health treatment facilities, so if you have a problem, you might not know where to go for help," Goetz said. "We're thinking that one of the things we need to investigate in the future is whether awareness is the problem or is there a stigma? These are all important issues to consider and they could be addressed through educational or other programs."

Goetz worked with Meri Davlasheridze, of Texas A&M at Galveston, on the study, which was supported by the Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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