The Evolving Consequences of OxyContin Reformulation on Drug Overdoses

Published in: American Journal of Health Economics, Volume 7, No. 1, pages 41–67 (Winter 2021). doi: 10.1086/711723

Posted on RAND.org on March 17, 2021

by David Powell, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula

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Recent evidence suggests that the short-term transition of the opioid crisis from prescription opioids to heroin can be attributed to the reformulation of OxyContin, which substantially reduced access to abusable prescription opioids. In this paper, we find that over a longer time horizon, reformulation stimulated illicit drug markets to grow and evolve. We compare overdose trajectories in areas more exposed to reformulation, defined as states with higher rates of nonmedical OxyContin use before reformulation, to less exposed areas. More exposed areas experienced disproportionate increases in fatal overdoses involving synthetic opioids (fentanyl) and nonopioid substances like cocaine, suggesting that these new epidemics are related to the same factors driving the rise in heroin deaths. Instead of just short-term substitution from prescription opioid to heroin overdoses, the transition to illicit markets spurred by reformulation led to growth in the overall overdose rate to unprecedented levels.

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