A new study has discovered that regions of the nation with the highest rates of chronic opioid prescription use voted for Donald Trump.
Sixty percent of counties with higher than average rates of opioid prescriptions supported Trump, compared with 39 percent of counties with lover than average rates, according to a study published Friday in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.
The areas with the high rates of opioid use were largely concentrated in the South and Appalachia with high unemployment rates and lower median incomes. Some have termed voters in such regions the “oxy electorate.”
The study examined voting maps and three-month prescriptions to people enrolled in Medicare Part D in 2015. Rates of opioid prescriptions tend to correlate with illegal use of the drug in the same area, according to lead researcher Dr. James Goodwin of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“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 National Public Radio.
Trump support might be explained simply by demographics: the same rural, economically depressed populations most severely affected by opioid use also happened to be the same communities that backed Trump. But researchers concluded that socioeconomic factors accounted for about two-thirds of the Trump support.
Communities facing grueling addiction problems may also be the most likely to seek a dramatic change, according to Goodwin.
A county “dissolving because of opioids … can lead to a sense of despair,” Goodwin told NPR. “You want something different. You want radical change.”
Some critics warned that researchers might be overreaching. But Goodwin said the study is not implying that the Trump vote “caused opioids or that opioids caused the Trump vote” — or that opioid addicts were voting for Trump. “If you’re stoned out on opioids, you’re probably not voting,” Goodwin told The Dallas Morning News. But an examination of the association among opioid use, socioeconomic factors and politics may offer clues to the opioid addiction epidemic, according to the study.
“Support for the Republican candidate in the 2016 election is a marker for physical conditions, economic circumstances, and cultural forces associated with opioid use,” the study concluded. “The commonly used socioeconomic indicators do not totally capture all of those forces.”
Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy fellow at the nonpartisan Baker Institute who was not involved in the study, said the findings show how complex the opioid challenge is in society.
“Trump tapped into something in that segment of voters,” she told The Dallas Morning News. Opioid use is “about more than just prescriptions. This is a very complex relationship, and representative of a deeper problem … of problems we are not addressing as a society.”