A new study pushes back against a popular “deaths of despair” narrative.

There’s a common story told in the media about the opioid epidemic: In this telling, it’s not a coincidence that many of the communities that have been hit hard by the drug overdose crisis happen to be rust belt and Appalachian towns that have seen jobs leave over the past few years. This economic hardship has fed what some have characterized as, borrowing a term from groundbreaking research by economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case, “deaths of despair.”

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, however, pushes back on this common story. Its central finding: Changing economic conditions in the past decade and a half explain less than 10 percent of the rise in drug overdose deaths between 1999, near the beginning of the opioid crisis, and 2015, the latest year with applicable data at the time of the study.

In short, recent economic hardship seems to explain only a small portion of the opioid crisis — and Christopher Ruhm, the study’s author, argued that even his findings may overestimate the impact of worsening economic conditions on the epidemic.

Deaton and Case, whose report addressed opioid deaths as well as suicide and alcohol-related deaths, have already responded to the paper. They don’t dispute its findings. But they argue that it doesn’t address the original definition they use for deaths of despair, which includes deaths that were likely caused not solely by recently changing economic conditions but also shifting social and cultural forces as well as longer-term economic outcomes.

Ruhm, an economist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told me that it’s true Deaton and Case may not have intended their deaths of despair hypothesis to be interpreted as a solely economic phenomenon, but Read More Here