Surprising Findings about Addiction in the Workplace
Quest Diagnostics’ annual drug testing data for 2016 revealed the highest rate of positive workforce drug tests in 12 years. Given the persistent opioid epidemic, this may not sound surprising. Except, the data show that the increase in positive drug screens were not attributed to heroin or prescription opioids, where rates remained stable or dropped. Instead, there were increases in positive drug screens for cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines. Notably, the data reflected that positive drug screens for marijuana were higher than the national average in Colorado and Washington, two states that have legalized recreational marijuana.
These findings serve to remind us that while the opioid epidemic currently receives a lot of attention, people are still misusing other substances. Although several interventions and policies are specific to opioids, we must also ensure that evidence-based approaches are broadly directed to all drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. As described in last year’s report by the Surgeon General, it is imperative that we adopt a public health approach for addiction that can effectively prevent and treat misuse of all substances and all forms of addiction.
Quest’s drug testing data consists of samples from employees who are required by federal law to submit to testing for safety reasons, as well as the general workforce. Samples may be collected pre-employment or after a workplace accident. While the sample size is nationally representative and reflective of the U.S. workforce, it only reflects samples analyzed by Quest. Another limitation is that there are variations in the types of substances that are tested for by different employers. Quest’s reporting of increases and decreases in rates of positive drug screens from previous years are descriptive and not based on statistical significance testing.
Quest breaks down the data on positive workplace drug test drug screens by state and by substance and compares the rates of positive drug screens to national averages. This type of data is one measure of the nature and extent of substance misuse in particular states. States should utilize such data to develop data-driven policies to address substance use and addiction that are tailored to the specific problems they face.
The findings from Quest’s analysis serve as a reminder to employers that they have an important role to play in addressing substance use and addiction among their employees. Employers incur tremendous costs related to substance use and addiction and, therefore, should recognize the importance of addressing substance use in the workplace. They can provide resources through Employee Assistance Programs and help employees access quality care when they need it. One way is by ensuring comprehensive coverage of evidence-based treatment for addiction in employer-sponsored health insurance plans.
Quest’s data helps contribute to our understanding of the magnitude and scope of substance use and addiction. The decline in positive drug screens for prescription opioids hopefully signals that interventions to address misuse of those drugs are starting to work. Nevertheless, the increase in rates of positive drug screens for other substances suggests that substance misuse and addiction continue to require our collective and urgent attention.
Lindsey Vuolo, JD, MPH
Lindsey is Associate Director of Health Law and Policy at Center on Addiction