Why Is the OECD Trying to Connect Labor Market Conditions and Opioids?

story in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the latest report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on ”prime age” (25-54) labor-force participation rates among its 35 member countries through the last quarter of 2017. While the US rate has improved, it remains below the average OECD rate, lagging behind such developed countries as Japan and the UK. What’s puzzling is why the authors of the report decided to weigh in on the opioid overdose issue.

Noting that per capita opioid prescriptions in the US are “significantly higher” than in other OECD countries, the report finds that participation rates for all adults (not limited to prime age) vary from state to state. The rate was lowest in West Virginia at 53 percent, and highest in North Dakota at 71 percent. It mentioned that opioid prescription rates are “generally higher” in those states with lower labor participation rates, leading it to declare that the use of opioid drugs “appears to be connected” to labor market conditions.

The number of opioid prescriptions has been dropping steadily in the US since it peaked in 2010. In fact, high-dose opioid prescriptions are down over 41 percent. An April 2018 report from the American Medical Association trumpeted a 22 percent decrease in opioid prescriptions between 2013 and 2017. 

The false narrative dominating the media and driving opioid policy blames opioid abuse and overdoses on doctors addicting their patients to pain pills. The near quadrupling of the sales of prescription opioids between 1999 and 2014 is often used to help make the case. 

Yet correlation does not imply causation. The AMA made note of this in its April report on the dramatic drop in prescriptions when it stated:

It is notable that every state has experienced a decrease, but this is tempered by the fact that deaths related to heroin and illicit fentanyl are increasing at a staggering rate, and deaths related to prescription opioids also continue to rise. These statistics again prove that simply decreasing prescription opioid supplies will not end the epidemic.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that overdoses—especially from fentanyl and heroin—continue to soar as prescription rates decline on the state level as well. 

The principle that correlation does not imply causation also applies to the observations in the OECD report.

The OECD report mentions that the overall labor-force participation rate tends to be lower in states where disability rates are higher. And West Virginia is a leader among states with respect to the percentage of its population on Social Security Disability benefits at 3.9 percent. It therefore points to a “possible connection between drug use and disability,” adding “addiction ultimately impairs participation.” It is certainly reasonable to expect that patients disabled by chronic severe pain conditions will be prescribed opioids. But there is no evidence that opioid use increases disability rates. In fact, Cochrane systematic studies in 2010 and 2012 found an addiction rate of approximately 1 percent in chronic non-cancer pain patients on long-term opioids. And many chronic pain patients are gainfully employed but have to stop working when they are cut-off from their opioids and their pain becomes debilitating. 

As I have written here and here, the overdose crisis was never about doctors and patients. It has always been primarily the result of non-medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market that results from drug prohibition.

Because correlation does not imply causation the OECD report carefully avoids drawing conclusions by using phrases like “appears to be connected” and “generally higher.” But its allusion to a connection between opioid prescribing and the labor participation rate is intellectually irresponsible and seems a gratuitous attempt to patronize the opioid policy establishment.