The opioid epidemic has been making headlines in America for over half a decade. The death toll from this crisis has steadily been rising since 2015. But there are many questions about who is most at risk of opioid-related deaths that researchers are still working to address.
Nathan Fiala, associate professor of agricultural and resource economics in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources has received a Hatch Grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to study the correlations between opioid-related deaths, economic factors, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fiala will take advantage of a massive database cataloguing information about every person who has died in the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts since 2012. The database includes information on the cause of death, the person’s age, race and ethnicity, gender, the last job they held, the town they lived in, and the town they died in.
“Those pictures look very different from one another,” Fiala says. “It’s really fascinating.”
Existing research on opioid-related deaths has already found significant differences among demographic groups. For example, white men who use opioids tend to die at early middle age whereas black and Latinx men who use opioids tend to die later in life.
Fiala is looking to determine where these deaths are happening and to whom. While the database he will be using goes back to 2012, he will be focusing on more recent trends from the past four or five years through present.
Fiala suspects his research applying an economic lens to these deaths will reveal a troubling pattern that opioid-related deaths are much more prevalent for lower-income individuals who worked lower-skill jobs and lived in economically disadvantaged areas.
This study will provide solid data to back up what has been largely anecdotal common knowledge about the opioid epidemic’s disparate impact on low-income individuals.
“We’re quantifying very precise things people have had a suspicion about but didn’t have the best evidence for,” Fiala says.
While there has been some research on these trends nationally, Fiala is focusing in on the impact the epidemic is having more locally.
“Rather than looking at this nationally, we’re really focusing on two New England states,” Fiala says.
Fiala will also be looking about how the COVID-19 pandemic may map onto these trends.
This new grant relates to Fiala’s previous work studying the death toll among frontline workers in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
He found that the virus disproportionately impacted black and Latinx households and the loss of the primary wage earner in these households had a devastating effect on communities.
This work will be useful to stakeholders at all levels of government and nonprofit organizations to better allocate resources to help those most affected by the ongoing opioid crisis.
Fiala holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Irvine. His research interests include development, food security, environment, and political economy.