Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, or so my folks would like to remind me when I was growing up. Now, there’s scientific evidence of just that.
A new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in December found that opioid deaths were about 85 percent higher among people of prime working age in counties where automotive assembly plants had closed five years earlier, compared with counties where such factories remained open.
“We found that automotive assembly plant closures, which led to dramatic reductions in economic opportunities in manufacturing for individuals living in those areas, were strongly associated with poor health outcomes—specifically, higher opioid overdose death rates,” says Atheendar Venkataramani, MD, Ph.D., the lead author of the paper and a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “The fading American dream may be more than an economic problem; it may also adversely affect America’s health.”
Venkataramani’s team examined opioid-related deaths from 1999 to 2016 in 112 manufacturing counties near major automotive assembly plants. At the start of the study, 2.7 percent of adults aged 18 to 65 lived in these counties. During the study period, 3.4 percent of opioid deaths nationwide occurred in these counties, including 29 counties that experienced plant closures and 83 that did not.
At the start of the study period, opioid overdose death rates were similar in all of those manufacturing counties, at roughly 1 per 100,000 population. But where plants closed, there were 8.6 more deaths for every 100,000 people five years later, compared with counties where factories remained open.
White male young adults were hardest hit. Five years after plant closures, there were 20.1 more opioid-related deaths per 100,000 among white men ages 18 to 34 and 12.8 more opioid deaths per 100,000 among white men ages 35 to 65, compared to counties without plant closures.
Younger white women were hard-hit too. There were 6.4 more opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 among white women ages 18 to 34 five years after plants closed.
The authors note that although the study shows a robust association between plant closures and fatal opioid overdoses, the closures are not the only cause of the opioid crisis. The supply of drugs also plays a major role. At the same time, drug overdoses are increasingly seen as “deaths of despair,” not unlike fatalities from smoking and drinking, which tend to rise during economic downturns, the study team points out.
We often criticize political leaders for lavishing corporations with tax breaks and subsidies to locate assembly plants in their states or cities. But, what’s the alternative? Good-paying manufacturing jobs bring more than just tax revenue and economic prosperity. They bring hope, opportunity, pride, stability and community. Who wouldn’t want that?