Family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave protest messages written on pill bottles outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, in Stamford, Connecticut, April 17, 2018. Credit: Jessica Hill | AP

A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston finds that prescribing practices are a stronger driver of the opioid crisis in New England than economic conditions. The goal of the study was to better understand the underlying cause of the epidemic, which has claimed 10,000 lives across the region in recent years.

The study by the public policy branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston examined the rate of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths county by county in New England.

“When you consider those economic indicators jointly with prescribing rates, it becomes clear that prescribing rates are really what might be driving this pattern,” said Riley Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with the bank.

“We found that the counties that, several years ago had the highest rates of prescription opioids are now the ones that had the highest rates of fatal overdoses,” Sullivan said.

[5 charts and maps that show where the opioid epidemic stands in the Bangor region]

Sullivan said there is a link between economic conditions and the opioid crisis, but the link with prescribing practices is stronger. The most recent data the report examined for overdose deaths was from 2016. That’s the same year that a Maine law went into effect that limits opioid prescriptions.

Maine’s director of opioid response, Gordon Smith, said the state has seen progress since then.

“Eighteen months after that, we find that for the first time in seven or eight years, there’s a decline in overdose deaths, it’s kind of further evidence of what they’re suggesting in the report,” Smith said.

Maine’s overdose death rate dropped 15 percent last year. The Federal Reserve report also found that states that have approached the opioid crisis as a public health issue, such as Vermont, had the lowest rate of overdose deaths in New England.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.