HKS Authors

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The fourfold increase in opioid deaths between 2000 and 2017 rivals even the COVID-19 pandemic as a health crisis for America. Why did it happen? Measures of demand for pain relief—physical pain and despair—are high and in many cases rising, but their increase was nowhere near as large as the increase in deaths. The primary shift is in supply, primarily of new forms of allegedly safer narcotics. These new pain relievers flowed in greater volume to areas with more physical pain and mental health impairment, but since their apparent safety was an illusion, opioid deaths followed. By the end of the 2000s, restrictions on legal opioids led to further supply-side innovations, which created the burgeoning illegal market that accounts for the bulk of opioid deaths today. Because opioid use is easier to start than end, America's opioid epidemic is likely to persist for some time.


Cutler, David M., and Edward L. Glaeser. "When Innovation Goes Wrong: Technological Regress and the Opioid Epidemic." Journal of Economic Perspectives 35.4 (Fall 2021).