TheMilitary Times addressed the findings from a new study which suggested that U.S. troops and veterans who experienced combat had a more “substantial” risk for developing dependency on prescription opioids or heroin, than service members that were deployed but never saw armed conflict.
The study, published in September by the non-profit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found that opioid abuse was 7% higher among vets who were exposed to combat than other military service members.
Injuries Linked To Drug Abuse
The study authors also found that combat-exposed troops were also 1% more likely to use heroin than those who were not involved in combat, and that about one-third of opioid abuse and more than half of heroin abuse could be linked to an injury suffered as a result of combat.
The exact number of U.S. troops and veterans that have used or developed a dependency on opioids or heroin is unknown, but Veterans Administration (VA) officials reported in 2015 that they had observed a 55% increase in opioid use disorders among veterans with combat experience in either Iraq and Afghanistan, while approximately 68,000 veterans were treated at VA facilities for opioid dependency.
Between 2010 and 2016, more than 6,000 veterans in the VA system died of opioid-related causes. The economic impact of opioid addiction among service members is estimated at $1 billion per year, while heroin dependency is estimated at $470 million. But the study authors also noted that those numbers are most likely higher due to under-reporting by troops or veterans, who may also live in areas without access to treatment.
Opioid Addiction Rates Are Underreported Among Vets
Data from more than 12,000 male servicemen culled from both studies found that of more than 400 service members, nearly 13% reported using prescription drugs for recreational or non-medical purposes. Additionally, 9% of more than 11,000 servicemen who reported being in combat also stated that they used opioids for non-medical use, while 0.6% reported using heroin.
From these findings, the study authors concluded that combat exposure not only increased opioid narcotic and heroin use, but also the non-medical use of sedatives and tranquilizers, as well as the use of opioids with other drugs like benzodiazepines, which can increase incidents of overdose.
They also found that in states where medical marijuana is available, rates of opioid prescription, as well as hospitalizations and overdoses due to opioid use had all dropped. “While marijuana legalization is not a silver bullet, evidence that marijuana and opioids are substitutes suggests that access to medical marijuana may provide an alternative, less addictive and less unhealthy means of treating pain,” the study authors wrote.
The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have attempted to address the opioid issue by issuing new guidelines in 2010 and 2013 that sought to reduce or offer alternatives for opioids as pain medication. Opioid prescriptions at VA facilities have dropped since 2012.