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The link between unemployment and opioid prescribing. An instrumental variable approach using evidence from England

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Article number213897
JournalJournal of Epidemiology and Community Health

King's Authors


Background Unemployment has been associated with chronic pain, which is often treated with prescription opioids. Opioid mortality has been included in the so-called category of ‘deaths of despair’ due to the role of lack of opportunity. While previous studies have found an association between unemployment and opioids, the relationship is endogenous and examining any effect is challenging.

Objective The objective of this paper is to study the association between unemployment and opioid prescribing in England.

Data and Methods We used data from the GP prescribing database in England for the period 2011–2017 and followed ordinary least squares (OLS) and Instrumental Variable econometric approaches, controlling for other confounders. We used the number of foreign direct investment projects and the number of registered companies as instruments for unemployment, taking population size into account.

Results The OLS model suggests that an increase in the unemployment rate by 1 percentage point is associated with 0.017 additional opioid defined daily doses per capita—a 0.9% increase compared with the mean of 1.745. According to the instrumental variable model, an increase in unemployment by 1 percentage point leads to an increase in the number of opioid doses prescribed per capita by between 0.315 and 0.437, which constitutes a 18–25% increase compared with the mean of 1.745.

Conclusions Unemployment appears to have an impact on opioid prescribing volume in England. This reveals yet another negative effect of unemployment on health. Relevant labour market policies may play a protective role with regards to opioid use.

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