It has been almost 3 years since the opioid epidemic was declared a national public health emergency under federal law. Solutions have focused on supply-reduction strategies. These approaches, however, have failed to significantly curtail opioid overdose and related death. Demand for opioid use arising from social networks and environment is an important contributing factor to the current opioid epidemic. Adoption of existing underused methods is needed to drive further progress. This Perspective proposes the social contagion model as a promising framework through which to operationalize evaluation of the influence of social networks and environment in the opioid epidemic and argues for its greater application. Comparing the current epidemic with previous opioid epidemics reiterates the utility of the social contagion model. This model acknowledges social network influence on individual behavior. It leverages tools from epidemiology, permits evaluation of interpersonal influence, facilitates consideration of disproportionate and collateral effects, and overcomes limitations of traditional models and geographic assumptions inherent to many approaches surrounding the current opioid epidemic. Analyzing the opioid epidemic within a social contagion framework will enhance evaluation methods and enable the design of interventions to reflect the actual demands of the current crisis. If the influence of social networks and environment is not considered, the devastating toll of the opioid epidemic could grow.
Author(s): Christina Cutter, Richard Larson, and Mahshid Abir