Study Links Deindustrialization with Opioid Deaths

By Matthew McMullan
Jan 06 2020 |
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It’s time to build some jobs programs and do something about it.

We’ve read about the China shock, in which some American workers saw their economic stability and opportunities evaporate after Washington gave China normalized trade relations and exposed them to intense import competition.

And we’ve learned about “deaths of despair,” about how drug, alcohol and suicide deaths are on the rise in the United States – particularly among white men without a college degree.

Last week came a link between the two, and it’s pretty specific: A new study finds that where American auto plants closed, opioid-related deaths increased.

The report was published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers compared counties that had an automotive assembly plant close with counties where such plants remained open between 1999 and 2016, and found a significant increase in opioid overdose mortality rates among adults (ages 18-65) in counties that had experienced closures.

The New York Times got a really good quote out of one of its researchers:

“For a long time, we’ve been interested in the link between the American dream and America’s health, namely that the fading American dream actually has population health consequences,” said Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani, the lead author of the paper and a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s an unfortunate natural experiment when you have a disintegration of an industry like this through plant closures in that it allows us to understand what the consequences of those negative events are.”

Shout out to the shareholder class and everyone else out there over there over the years for helping make this “unfortunate natural experiment” possible. 

Anyway: A serious criticism of the American political class – Washington – is its inability to meaningfully help people recover from the hardships that have sprung from some of its policy choices. For example: American manufacturing got hollowed out by an offshoring-friendly tax code and trade agreements that effectively did the same … and yet we still have major presidential primary candidates suggesting workers in dying industries should be “learning to program,” as if that were a serious employment policy. 

Or consider the deadly chemical dependency that has bloomed across the country and is really bad in deindustrialized areas because pharmaceutical regulators didn’t bother to regulate … despite a lot of noise to the contrary, the Trump administration isn’t putting in much of an effort to combat it.

Not everyone is this passive, though: In rural Knott County, Kentucky, the county drug court and a rehab center are collaborating with luthiers – artisans who build and repair string instruments – to build an apprenticeship program. Knott County has long cultural ties to music and instrument making, and it has enrolled nearly 150 people:

“We’re dusty old woodworkers, not trained therapists,” said Doug Naselroad, the master luthier who with a former colleague dreamed up the program. “But so many times now, giving somebody something to do has proved to be a powerful step in their recovery.”

This is super cool and a good idea, and I think that dude is onto something … and I’m not the only one. Here’s what an academic told the Philadelphia Inquirer for a story about the link between factory closures and opioid deaths:

“All our drug treatment programs, and all the ways money gets invested, tend to focus on the psychological, individual decision-making process. In fact, evidence suggests that [we should] create interventions that would provide things like jobs for people in drug treatment programs — as opposed to a pep talk.”