Counties with higher-than-average opioid use were also more likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Comparing a map of counties most affected by the opioid epidemic strikes a surprising similarity to Trump strongholds, Dr. James S. Goodwin, chair of geriatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, told NPR. “There was a clear overlap between counties that had high opioid use … and the vote for Donald Trump.”
For the study, Goodwin and his team of researchers reviewed Census Bureau data, 2016 election results, and Medicare Part D prescriptions. Opioid use by county was determined by the percentage of enrollees who had received a three-month or longer prescription of opioids, a strong indicator of illicit opioid use, Goodwin says.
“There are very inexact ways of measuring illegal opioid use,” he says. “All we can really measure with precision is legal opioid use.”
Researchers found that 60 percent of voters in counties that had higher-than-average rates of chronic opioid use voted for Trump, while only 39 percent of voters in counties with lower-than-average opioid use voted for Trump.
Goodwin says that both factors may have to do with social and economic issues. Trump reigned in rural, economically depressed counties in the 2016 election. These areas are also more likely to spawn opioid abuse. And while the two issues may not be related, they both might be symptoms of lacking economic opportunity.
To test this theory, Goodwin and his team reviewed socioeconomic characteristics such as unemployment rates, median incomes, education levels and religious service attendance. They found that these variables made up about two-thirds of the link between Trump voters and opioid prescriptions.
Goodwin points out that his study isn’t suggesting that Trump caused the opioid epidemic or vise versa. “We’re talking about associations.” At the very least, the findings are grounds for discussions, especially as the country is making strides to curtail the opioid crisis.