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Government needs more data to estimate opioid impact on labor market, Fed report says

| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 12:24 p.m.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that opioid abuse is so widespread that it's affecting the ability of employers to find workers, but the government lacks the data to make sound policy decisions, two analysts say in a Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland report.

“Two clear conclusions from our analysis are that we need better data to understand the opioid epidemic, and that the relationship between drug use and the labor market warrants further study,” Dionissi Aliprantis and Anne Chen say in the report.

The government data on overdose deaths show those caused by opioids have clearly ramped up, the study says. Western Pennsylvania has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths.

Measurements of drug use, however, are lacking, the report says.

One of the best sources of data on heroin use comes from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, but the survey excludes people in institutional group quarters such as hospitals, prisons and treatment centers, so it misses information on many of the heaviest users, the report says.

The survey estimates that there are about 60,000 heavy users of opioids nationwide, but other estimates put the figure at about 1 million, which would be about 0.5 percent of the labor force, the report says.

A study by Princeton economist Alan Krueger concludes that opioid use caused a 20 percent drop in men and 25 percent drop in women participating in the workforce from 1999 to 2015.

Secondary indicators, such as the amount of opioids being prescribed, suggest that drug use has exploded. The number of prescribed opioids tripled between 1999 and 2015, and the amount prescribed in 2015 was enough to keep every American medicated continuously for three weeks, the authors note.

The government stopped two other programs that tracked drug use by people with prior arrests and one that tracked drug-related emergency room visits, the report says.

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