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The opioid crisis shows innovation is not always progress: National Bureau of Economic Research

OxyContin first became available in 1996. Since then, opioid deaths have increased five-fold in America. 

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper lays out the stark situation:

“Nearly 850,000 people died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2019, and in 2019, more people died from opioids (70,630) than from motor vehicle accidents (38,800) or breast cancer (42,281). The increase in drug overdose deaths is the dominant reason for the declining US life expectancy between 2014 and 2017 and has contributed to the longer-term stagnation of life expectancy.”

A University of Waterloo study indicates similar numbers in Canada: the number of people who died from opioids in Canada increased by 592 percent between 2000 and 2017.

While there has always been demand for pain relief, the crucial change that precipitated this public health crisis was innovation in the supply, write authors David M. Cutler & Edward L. Glaeser. 

“OxyContin was portrayed as a revolutionary wonder drug: because the painkiller was released only slowly into the body, relief would last longer and the potential for addiction would decline. From 1996 to 2011, legal opioid shipments rose six-fold. But the hoped-for benefits proved a mirage. Pain came back sooner and stronger than expected. Tolerance built up, which led to more and higher doses. Opioid use led to opioid abuse, and some took to crushing the pills and ingesting the medication all at once. A significant black market for opioids was born.”

This crisis serves as a cautionary tale, the authors conclude. Technological advancement is not always progress, and care must be taken to properly examine innovation writ large. 

“The larger message of the opioid epidemic is that technological innovation can go badly wrong when consumers and regulators underestimate the downsides of new innovations and firms take advantage of this error.”

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