The report Drugs in Australia 2010 is the most recent, comprehensive report on Australian patterns of drug use and the terrible costs that substance abuse incurs. Substances include tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. The numbers are staggering. Four out of five Australians over 12 years old had consumed alcohol over the previous year, and 46 percent drank weekly. Close to 40 percent over 14 years old have used an illicit drug, with the most common drugs being cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines and cocaine.1
The costs of alcohol and illicit drug use are just as surprising. In the same report it is estimated that alcohol cost Australia over $15.3 billion in 2004-2005, and obviously the numbers have grown significantly since then. During the same year, the costs of illicit drug use were Australia $8.2 billion, once again a number that has grown since then. Embedded in all of these numbers is the cost to employers of a workforce that drinks and uses illicit substances. However, these costs are only the specifically definable ones like hospital stays, counselling, lost productivity, and health care costs. There are other costs that are not counted, simply because they are not specifically and directly connected to substance abuse. Yet they exist, and employers need to be aware they exist.
Finding the Direct Path
There is more than enough medical evidence that chronic drug and alcohol use degrades the body in many ways. As research continues, the body of evidence about the dangers of substance abuse grows and has significant implications for employers. The path from drug use to medical problems is not always obvious until medical research is unable to uncover the facts. For example, it was reported that methamphetamine makes a person more susceptible to developing the cryptococcosis lung infection. Injected drugs promoted colonisation of the lungs by the fungus and accelerated disease progression. New research also reports that meth degrades the blood-brain barrier which allows the fungus to invade the central nervous system.2
If meth promotes lung disease and brain infection, it is natural to assume that people regularly using the drug are weakening their lungs up to the point where they have a diagnosable medical condition. In the meantime, these people are the workers more likely to have breathing problems, experience greater harm when exposed to air pollutants in the workplace, and miss workdays due to sickness. It costs the employer in lost productivity and higher medical premiums, but the cause is not identified as illicit drug use.
In other words, the costs of drug and alcohol use are greatly understated by medical researchers. The implication is that employers are paying for work-related illnesses that are really triggered by personal decisions to use illicit drugs and alcohol. Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace serves multiple purposes. It accomplishes the obvious like detecting substance use by employees. However, looking at the bigger picture, it accomplishes much more by promoting healthier workers which improves their lives and reduces employer costs.
There are probably billions more in expenses borne by employers that are really due to worker substance abuse. Though it is impossible to connect all diseases and medical conditions that develop due to the use of drugs and alcohol, there is no doubt there are many. Mediscreen (mediscreen.net.au) can help employers minimise the cost of substance abuse by providing efficient screening services in support of a drug and alcohol policy.
1 AIHW 2011. Drugs in Australia 2010: tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. Drug statistics series. Cat. no. PHE 154. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved at: http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737420497.
2 Susceptibillity to deadly fungal infection increased by methamphetamine. (2013 July 31). Medical News Today. Retrieved at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/264141.php.