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14 Million Workers Abuse Drugs, Alcohol

Construction, Food Service Most Affected, Survey Shows
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WebMD Health News

July 17, 2007 -- The ranks of America's full-time workforce include at least 14 million workers who abuse drugs or alcohol, according to a federal study released Monday.

The report concludes that nearly 11 million American workers abuse or are dependent on alcohol, while another 3 million abuse illegal drugs. The figures represent more than 8% of the total full-time workforce, though some industries have far more substance abuse.

"We would consider this an underestimate," says Joe Gfroerer, director of the division of population surveys at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which released the study.

That's because the survey relied on workers to disclose their own drug use habits to researchers. Many may choose to hide their drug use rather than share it, Gfroerer tells WebMD.

The food service and construction industries had among the highest levels of drug and alcohol use across the economy. Nearly one in five construction workers admitted drinking heavily in the past month, the report found.

Researchers said they can't draw any conclusions about the cause of higher drug use rates in those industries, since drug use is often linked to lower income and lower education levels. Mining and drilling workers also reported high rates of alcohol use.

"The high rate of drug and alcohol use in hazardous industries is cause for concern," says Elena Carr, the Department of Labor's drug policy coordinator.

A statement from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy Monday urged employers to consider using workplace drug testing programs.

About four in 10 workers work for employers that require drug or alcohol testing during the hiring process. Those workplaces also tend to have fewer drug users on the payroll. But researchers still don't know if the tests are actually weeding out substance abusers.

"It doesn't mean that drug testing is causing people to stop using drugs. It could be that drug users just don't work there," Gfroerer said.

The study was based on interviews with 128,000 adults, including around 70,000 full-time workers. The interviews took place between 2002 and 2004.

They also showed workers who acknowledge drinking heavily are more likely to miss work or frequently change jobs. Nearly 14% of workers who reported drinking heavily in the past month said they'd also skipped one or more days of work during that time. Just more than 8% of nondrinking workers said they'd skipped work.

  • How does (or did) your substance abuse affect your work? Tell us about it on WebMD's Addiction and Substance Abuse Support Group board and share your advice with other members as well.

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