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Packet of drugs In the new formulation of OxyContin, abusers could no longer crush the pills into a powder and snort the drug, or liquefy and inject it. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make it harder to abuse, opioid addicts swiftly switched to a cheaper and readily available alternative: heroin. A new study by three economists finds that the uptake of heroin was so complete that no lives were saved at all. Every death from OxyContin that was prevented was replaced with an additional death from heroin.

The results “call into question” whether reformulating drugs to make them harder to abuse “is an effective policy to reduce drug abuse and poisonings in the presence of close substitutes,” write the authors in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “How the Reformulation of Oxycontin Ignited the Heroin Epidemic.”

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