“When we look at the two maps, there was a clear overlap between counties that had high opioid use … and the vote for Donald Trump,” said the study’s author.
There may be a geographic connection between those who supported Trump in the 2016 election and prescriptions for opioids, according to a new study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.
James S. Goodwin, chair of geriatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch and the study’s lead author, along with other researchers, examined data from numerous sources which included the Census Bureau and the 2016 election, as well as data from Medicare Part D, a program for prescription drugs that helps those with disabilities and the elderly.
“When we look at the two maps, there was a clear overlap between counties that had high opioid use… and the vote for Donald Trump,” Goodwin told NPR. “There were blogs from various people saying there was this overlap. But we had national data.”
In order to estimate the amount of opioid use by county, Goodwin and his team utilized the number of Medicare Part D enrollees who had three months or more worth of opioid prescriptions. According to Goodwin, it was harder to estimate the amount of illegal opioid use, though prescription opioid use is strongly correlated with it.
“There are very inexact ways of measuring illegal opioid use,” Goodwin told NPR. “All we can really measure with precision is legal opioid use.”
In the research process, the team looked at a number of factors to determine how a county’s rate of chronic opioid prescriptions was influenced. They found that in the 2016 election, Trump support was closely tied to opioid prescriptions. In counties with higher-than-average numbers of chronic opioid prescriptions, 60% of those who voted did so for Trump whereas in counties with lower-than-average prescriptions, only 39% voted for him.
NPR also states that some of the correlation could have to do with social and economic factors, as many rural counties with struggling economies voted for Trump, and those are the areas where opioid use is common.
“As a result, opioid use and support for Trump might not be directly related, but rather two symptoms of the same problem—a lack of economic opportunity,” NPR noted.
Goodwin and his team also analyzed factors such as unemployment rate, median income, how rural areas were, education level and religious service attendance. They found that these factors account for about 66% of the connection between Trump voters and opioid use, but not the remaining percentage.
“It very well may be that if you’re in a county that is dissolving because of opioids, you’re looking around and you’re seeing ruin. That can lead to a sense of despair,” Goodwin told NPR. “You want something different. You want radical change.”
For some areas hit hard by the opioid crisis, NPR states, the Trump presidency may have seemed like a solution.
While the study shows a likely link, it isn’t definitive and has shortcomings, Goodwin states.
“We were not implying causality, that the Trump vote caused opioids or that opioids caused the Trump vote,” he cautions. “We’re talking about associations.”