Johnson City Press: Another reason opioids are killing America
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Another reason opioids are killing America

Johnson City Press • Feb 6, 2019 at 7:00 AM

If you have any doubt about the effects of the country’s biggest health crisis, look no further than the University of Tennessee study Staff Writer Zach Vance wrote about in Monday’s edition.

These results should surprise no one: Opioids are a drain on the workforce. The UT researchers found correlation between opioid prescription rates and declining participation in the labor market.

“The effects are really large,” said Matt Harris, one of the study’s authors. “Prescription opioids may explain up to half of the decline in labor force participation since 2000.”

The study also compared labor markets with and without the heavy opioid prescribers and offered a sobering economic domino effect for the Volunteer State. The results suggest Tennessee could effectively boost income among residents by $800 million per year by reducing opioid usage by 10 percent.

As Dr. Jon Smith, director of East Tennessee State University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, told Vance, the UT results should catch everyone’s attention.

“We frequently think about this opioid epidemic in terms of lives shattered, which is, of course, the most important thing,” Smith said. “But, the impact this has on communities, especially rural communities like ours, it’s just horrific. It not only affects the people who are condemned by addiction, but it has a serious impact on the ability of our economy to produce wealth and make lives better.”

Anyone paying attention already knows the direct effects opioid addiction have on health care costs and more importantly human life. Tennessee’s opioid-related death rate is 36 percent higher than the national average. The state’s rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome births is more than twice that of the nation, representing a public health crisis that on its own carries grave, lasting effects.

But as the UT workforce study exemplifies, the effects reach far into aspects of society beyond the health concerns — child-rearing, education, social services, public safety, economic development and more. Some estimates place the total economic impact — when all direct expenditures and societal factors are included — at $500 billion annually for the nation.

That’s simply unsustainable.

At the federal, state and local levels, authorities everywhere are engaged in the fight against opioid addiction in legislation, health education, treatment, law enforcement and the courts. Both our federal and state governments have devoted new financial resources to reducing the level of addiction. Here in Northeast Tennessee, East Tennessee State University and Ballad Health have joined forces to take on the issue.

One cannot help but wonder whether the opioid war is winnable, though, if the United States continues to waste time squabbling around other political, less critical concerns. Every American’s quality of life is diminished by the opioid addiction crisis either directly or secondarily, and that’s especially true in Northeast Tennessee.

This fight should be atop the list of the nation’s priorities.

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