The rise in use and abuse of painkilling drugs called opioids has kept tens of thousands of Kentuckians out of the workforce and put a drag on economic growth, according to estimates released Wednesday by a conservative public-policy organization.
The growth in opioid prescribing in Kentucky between 1999 and 2015 was associated with a 2.8 percent decline in the number of “prime age” workers — those 25 to 54 — taking part in the labor force, the study from the American Action Forum concluded.
That decline, which translated to a loss of 48,200 workers as of 2015 and more than 650 million lost work hours, was among the biggest in the nation.
The lower work-participation rate slowed annual growth in Kentucky’s gross domestic product — the value of goods produced and services provided — by 1.3 percentage points, costing the state billions in economic output, the study estimated.
For comparison, the study said opioid dependency pushed down labor-force participation nationwide among prime-age men by 1.4 percent and 1.8 percent among women between 1999 and 2015.
More than two million people were out of the workforce nationwide as of 2015 because of opioids, the study estimated.
Ben Gitis, the author of the study, said the decline in labor-force participation is a serious challenge to the U.S. economy.
“Opioids are likely playing a major role” in the drop, Gitis said.
Opioids include legal drugs, such as oxocydone, but also heroin and fentanyl, which have accounted for a bigger share of overdose deaths in the state and nation in recent years.
The study analyzed the relationship between prescribing of legal opioids and work participation. There is no way to directly measure the impact of illegal opioids.
The study did not attempt to explain why opioid use pushes down workforce participation.
However, one reason is likely that higher levels of opioid prescribing lead to more addiction, leaving some people unable to hold a job. Another could be that people have a criminal record associated with abusing opioids, making it harder for them to get a job.
And Gitis said it’s also likely that many people abusing opioids know they couldn’t pass a pre-employment drug screen, so they don’t apply for jobs.
Some business owners in Kentucky have blamed the state’s opioid crisis for trouble finding workers, particularly for entry-level jobs.
Some areas of Kentucky, especially in Appalachia, have labor-participation rates well below the national level.
Opioids have had an even greater impact on the labor pool in a few other states, however.
The study from the American Action Forum estimated opioids reduced workforce participation in West Virginia and Arkansas by 3.8 percent, slowing their economic growth by 1.7 percent.
Missouri, Georgia and New York also had bigger declines in prime-age labor participation because of opioids, the study said.
“The U.S. economy depends on prime-age workers because they are among the most productive workers in the labor force,” the study said. “As federal, state, and local policymakers consider ways to grow the economy and boost the labor supply, addressing the opioid epidemic must be part of the solution.”