Topic: The Roles of Socioeconomic and Opioid Supply Factors in U.S. Drug Mortality: Urban-Rural and Within-Rural Differences
Keywords: health; mortality; urban-rural continuum; economic disadvantage; opioids
Over the past two decades deaths from opioids and other drugs have grown to be a major U.S. public health problem, but the severity of the crisis varies across the U.S., and explanations for widespread geographic variation in the severity of the drug crisis are limited. An emerging debate is whether geographic differences in drug mortality are driven mostly by opioid supply factors or socioeconomic despair factors. To explore this topic, I examined relationships between county-level drug mortality rates for 2000-02 and 2014-16 and several socioeconomic and opioid supply measures across the urban-rural continuum and within different rural labor markets. Net of county demographic composition, average drug mortality rates are highest and increased the most in large metro counties. In 2014-16, the most rural counties had an average of 6.2 fewer deaths per 100,000 population than large metro counties. Economic distress, family distress, persistent population loss, and opioid supply factors (exposure to prescription opioids and fentanyl) are all associated with significantly higher drug mortality rates. However, the magnitude of associations varies across the urban-rural continuum and across different types of rural labor markets. In rural counties, economic distress is a stronger predictor than opioid supply measures of drug mortality rates, but in urban counties, opioid supply factors are more strongly associated with drug mortality rates than is economic distress. Ultimately, drug mortality rates are the highest in economically-distressed mining and service sector dependent counties with high exposure to prescription opioids and fentanyl.