This has long seemed to me an understudied topic, so I was interested to read the job market paper of Angela E. Kilby, who is on the market this year from MIT. And she does what I like to see in a paper, namely try to figure out whether some practice or institution is actually worth it.
The background is this: “…In the face of concerns that undertreatment of pain was a “serious public health issue,” medically indicated use of these drugs over the past 15 years has increased dramatically, and attitudes have liberalized towards the use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain.”
When it comes to the increased use of opioids, she finds the following trade-offs:
1. Since 1999, there has been a fourfold increase in drug overdose deaths linked to opiod pain relievers. In 2013, the number of opiate-linked overdose deaths was 25,117, a higher number than I was expecting. (But note that most of these can no longer be reduced by the feasible interventions under consideration.)
2. The increased use of opioids seems to pass a cost-benefit test, compared to the passage of a tougher Prescription Monitoring Plan. With a host of caveats and qualifiers, she measures the pain reduction and other benefits from looser regulation at $12.1 billion a year and the costs of higher addiction rates, again from looser regulation, at $7.3 billion per year.
There is much more to it than what I am reporting, and in general I believe economists do not devote enough attention to studying the topic of pain.