Social Cost of Opioid Painkiller Abuse


Numerous journal articles review the opioid epidemic in the United States. Overall, they discuss overdose rates and personal interest stories. As a result, greater attention can be paid to potential interventions. Also, some articles discuss the large costs connected to opioid painkiller abuse. As compared to a discussion of microeconomic principles, this article will review societal costs involving opioid painkiller abuse including:

  • Total aggregate cost of opioid addiction
  • Healthcare expenses attributable to opioid addiction
  • Lost employment dollars
Total Aggregate Cost – 2006

According to this 2011 article, the economic burden of opioid painkillers includes the workplace, healthcare, and criminal justice costs:

Hansen, Ryan N., et al. “Economic costs of nonmedical use of prescription opioids.” The Clinical journal of pain 27.3 (2011): 194-202.

This analysis reports that the total societal cost of non-medical use opioid painkillers was $53 billion in 2006. As reported, 79% of that total was attributable to lost productivity. Also, 15% was for criminal justice costs and 4% for substance abuse treatment.

Of that lost productivity, we can identify sub-topics. These include the cost of loss of life productivity, unemployment or underemployment concerns, and incarceration and associated unemployment.

This study also estimates that 25% of the entirety of the cost of drug abuse was attributable to opioid painkiller abuse. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the total estimated cost of drug abuse in 2006 was $216 billion.

2013 Data

Updated 2013 analyses conducted by the CDC report the cost of opioid painkiller abuse estimated at $78.5 billion. The numbers include the cost of opioid mortality, lost jobs and underemployment, and treatment costs, all due to the opioid epidemic. The cost of lost productivity amounted to a total of $41.5 billion, with $21.5 billion being from fatal overdoses. The remaining $20 billion comes from poor workplace performance or unemployment.

Most noteworthy, almost $29 billion of this tab is attributable to healthcare costs. Partitioning of those costs is unclear from this data. What is the cost of treatment as compared to emergency or crisis services? See above with only 4% in the 2006 data going to treatment. While the healthcare bill is large, treatment dollars seem to be more effective than crisis dollars.

In summary, the net change from $53 to $78.5 billion amounts to a 48% increase in cost from the opioid epidemic over a 7 year period of time.

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Sociology and Public Health including Mangled Needles.