New study finds link between War on Terror combat and opioid and heroin abuse

Posted at 11:21 AM, Oct 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-15 16:41:55-04

NORFOLK, Va. - A recently published study says American troops who have seen combat in recent years have a substantially greater risk of abusing prescription painkillers and using heroin than those who may have deployed without seeing action.

The study, 'Did the War on Terror Ignite an Opioid Epidemic?' was published in September by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The authors of the study say that while public knowledge about the American opioid crisis is growing, "far less well known is that combat veterans constitute a population at ground zero of this crisis."

They claim the study is the first to examine whether post-9/11 combat deployments ignited an opioid epidemic in veterans.

"Our results provide consistent evidence that combat assignment substantially increases the risks of prescription painkiller abuse and illicit heroin use," the report says.

The findings showed that opioid abuse in veterans who saw combat was 7% higher than those who did not see combat.

"In addition to causing prescription painkiller abuse, our results also show that post-9/11 combat assignments induce some veterans to turn to the illicit heroin market," the report states, finding "that combat exposure is associated with a 1.4 percentage-point increase in prior month illicit heroin use, a large effect relative to a small sample mean."

Younger, enlisted active-duty servicemen were more likely to be impacted, according to the study authors.

"U.S. war veterans are at the forefront of the U.S. opioid epidemic," the authors conclude, adding, "while treatment for war injuries is one channel through which combat deployments increase opioid abuse, there are critical psychological channels at work as well, including PTSD and the mental health effects of exposure to battlefield trauma."

For its part, the Department of Defense it trying a number of strategies to combat the opioid epidemic, including non-drug therapies for pain management, making naloxone more available on military installations, and increasing monitoring of opioid prescriptions.