Did the War on Terror Ignite an Opioid Epidemic?

Resul Cesur, Joseph J. Sabia, W. David Bradford

NBER Working Paper No. 26264
Issued in September 2019
NBER Program(s):Health Economics

Grim national statistics about the U.S. opioid crisis are increasingly well known to the American public. Far less well known is that U.S. war veterans are at ground zero of the epidemic, facing an overdose rate twice that of civilians. Post-9/11 deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have exposed servicemembers to injury-related chronic pain, psychological trauma, and cheap opium supplies, each of which may fuel opioid addiction. This study is the first to estimate the causal impact of combat deployments in the Global War on Terrorism on opioid abuse. We exploit a natural experiment in overseas deployment assignments and find that combat service substantially increased the risk of prescription painkiller abuse and illicit heroin use among active duty servicemen. War-related physical injuries, death-related battlefield trauma, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emerge as primary mechanisms. The magnitudes of our estimates imply lower-bound combat exposure-induced health care costs of $1.04 billion per year for prescription painkiller abuse and $470 million per year for heroin use.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w26264

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