Is America’s opioid epidemic killing the economy?

Depending on your perspective, you can see the opioid crisis in many different ways: a human tragedy, a chemical epidemic, a criminal tsunami, a failure of character.

It is also inevitably and overwhelmingly a tale of economics.

“This is the story of the year,” said Jeff Korzenik, chief investment strategist for Fifth Third Private Bank. “Maybe it’s the story of the decade.”

Estimates are that abuse of legal drugs cost more than $70 billion last year – and that doesn’t include the surge of heroin and fentanyl. It will kills more than 60,000 people this year – more than U.S. combat deaths in a decade of the Vietnam War.

It is, say those who have struggled with addiction, everywhere – especially in suburbs and rural America.

And it is so widespread and so damaging that it seems to be a partial answer to some big puzzles that economists have been grappling with. For example, the long decline in the share of people in the workforce, especially the falling share of younger workers.

“We are missing about 3 million people out of the labor force,” Korzenik said. “If we had a participation rate – for each demographic – that we had in 2003, we would have 3 million more people working. That is adjusting for the baby boomer retirement. So if it is not the people aging out, what else is it?”

There are other explanations, but the more he looked at it, the more the data drove him toward opioids as explanation.

“I assumed that was not a drug story, but when you look at it, look at each demographic – for each age group, there are a higher percentage of people out of the work force.”

There’s no way of knowing precisely, but he has an educated estimates. “Of those 3 million missing people, I think that about one-half to three-quarters is drug related.”

Translation: 1.5 million to 2.25 million people.

“Eight years of economic expansion and we are running out of labor. We are in the end game of the economic expansion. And we have never had anything like the opioid epidemic hit the labor force. Maybe the 1918 influenza epidemic, otherwise nothing.”

For the full story, read the piece about opioids in suburban Atlanta in myajc.


AJC Business reporter Michael E. Kanell keeps you updated on the latest news about jobs, housing and consumer issues in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these stories:

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