Opioid Deaths Rise When Auto Plants Close, Study Shows

The loss of automotive factories across the United States may have contributed to a rise in local opioid overdose deaths in recent years, according to a study published on Monday, underscoring a connection between economic despair and drug abuse.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that opioid deaths were about 85 percent higher among people of prime working age — 16 to 65 — in counties where automotive assembly plants had closed five years earlier, compared with counties where such factories remained open.

“Major economic events, such as plant closures, can affect a person’s view of how their life might be in the future,” Atheendar Venkataramani, the study’s lead author and a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a news release. “These changes can have a profound effect on a person’s mental well-being, and could consequently influence the risk of substance use.”

The increase in opioid overdose deaths after plant closings was highest among non-Hispanic white men ages 18 to 34, followed by non-Hispanic white men between 35 and 65.

The findings are most relevant to the industrial Midwest and South, which have been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis as well as a manufacturing decline, according to Dr. Venkataramani.

He said the study reinforced the need for coordinated approaches to diagnosing and treating substance abuse in regions dealt a heavy blow by an economic downturn.

The findings were based on a review of 112 counties near car plants from 1999 to 2016. Of those counties studied, about a fourth had a plant close.