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Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

Opioids, a drug derived from the opium poppy plant, are driving an epidemic in the United States that killed over 80,000 Americans in 2021 alone. Legal opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine, are often prescribed as pain relievers. However, there are also illegal opioids, namely heroin and synthetic fentanyl. 

Legal opioids were widely prescribed beginning in the late 1990s, due in part to aggressive marketing campaigns by the pharmaceutical companies producing opioids. Over-prescribing helped create a population vulnerable to opioid addiction, allowing heroin use to drastically increase around 2010 as people began seeking cheaper and more potent drugs. 

This trend developed as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid even more powerful than heroin, became more readily available in the U.S. around 2013 due to the improved efficiency of the global supply chain. As the legal exchange of goods flourished, illegal goods, including fentanyl, utilized the increased interconnectedness to spread around the globe quickly.

While the opioid epidemic represents a significant public health emergency, addressing the causes of opioid use is challenging because no single factor predisposes a person to opioid addiction. Instead, opioid addiction is a complex combination of genetic, social and economic conditions. 

However, certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of a person becoming addicted. First, a genetic component makes certain people more likely to overuse opioids. Second, economic hardship, especially poverty or unemployment, can play a role by prompting a person to work a more dangerous job, increasing their risk of a chronic injury treated with prescription opioids. Last, social factors, such as feelings of hopelessness or experiencing traumatic events, can further increase one’s risk of abusing opioids. 


Klobucista, Claire. “The U.S. Opioid Epidemic.” Council on Foreign Relations,

Dasgupta, Nabarun, et al. “Opioid Crisis: No Easy Fix to Its Social and Economic Determinants.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 108, no. 2, 2018, pp. 182-6. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2017.304187.


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