The Opioid Epidemic and Racial Classification on Death Certificates

Awarded Scholars:
Aliya Saperstein, Stanford University
Andrew Noymer, University of California, Irvine
Project Date:
Apr 2018
Award Amount:
$35,000

Since the 1990s, rates of opioid abuse and opioid-related overdoses have increased more dramatically among whites than among other racial or ethnic groups. As a result, whites are portrayed as the the stereotypical opioid users in the press, documentaries, and research that focuses on decreasing life expectancy among whites. Building on several studies that have tracked instability in racial categorization in census data and surveys, sociologists Aliya Saperstein and Andrew Noymer will study how widespread attention to the opioid epidemic and its concentration among whites has affected how deceased individuals are classified racially on their death certificates. To what extent do patterns of racial re-classification—that is, differences between how a person was classified on their death certificate and how they were classified in a household survey when they were alive—differ by cause of death? Are deceased persons now more likely to be classified as white on their death certificates if opioid use was an underlying cause of their death relative to decedents whose deaths were not opioid-related? Do other causes of death that also appear to be on the rise among white Americans, such as suicides, exhibit similar patterns of racial reclassification?

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