Curb Smoking, Heroin for Economic Health

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THE ENQUIRER | JIM VOTRUBA | FEBRUARY 11, 2015

Employers know that business success and growth is inextricably linked to their workforce – specifically having enough talented and healthy employees engaged and productive in their work. In fact, a healthy workforce can lower insurance premiums and worker’s compensation claims, decrease absenteeism, and improve productivity.

The problem is that Kentucky’s economy is being severely hampered by its high rates of tobacco and drug abuse, the latter reflected most recently in our deadly heroin epidemic. These two health problems alone are responsible for more than $10 billion in annual economic consequences.

In just the last few years, Kentucky employers have seen an explosion of heroin use. Heroin overdose deaths are up significantly in the state. Overdoses attributed to heroin rose from 3 percent of all drug overdoses to 31 percent in just two years.

The University of Kentucky Center on Drug and Alcohol Research estimates that Kentucky spends $6 billion on costs related to heroin for both treatment of the addiction as well collateral costs such as prison and law enforcement. Much of this cost is passed on to taxpayers.

In addition to the costs to businesses, being known as the epicenter for the heroin epidemic may hurt efforts to attract new businesses and may give others pause about expanding their business.

As visible as the stories of heroin’s impact in Kentucky have been, there’s another addiction that impacts worker health and increases the cost of doing business in our state: smoking.

The adult smoking rate in Kentucky is among the highest in the nation at 26 percent. Nearly 8,000 Kentuckians die each year because of tobacco-related diseases. Eighty-five percent of all lung cancers are caused by cigarette smoking, and Kentucky leads the nation in deaths caused by lung cancer and its complications.

Kentucky spends $1.92 billion a year in health care costs treating tobacco-related illnesses. Smoking-related illness and death also cost Kentucky $2.3 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Kentucky businesses can’t afford to ignore these public health problems. Heroin and tobacco use impact businesses’ bottom lines with higher health insurance premiums and claims, lost productivity from workers, and higher taxes.

The solutions are complex, but legislation being considered in Frankfort will help.

A comprehensive, statewide smoke-free law in Kentucky is simply asking smokers to step outside of public spaces and workplaces to smoke where they will not harm others. It will not only protect employees from exposure to secondhand smoke but also encourage smokers to quit.

Several bills targeting heroin addiction are being considered as well. Legislation is needed to remove barriers to treatment and recovery, increase the availability of the life-saving drug naloxone, reduce predatory drug trafficking, and increase capacity for prevention.

To compete in today’s global economy, Kentucky workers need the right skills, training and education. But they also need to be healthy enough to come to work each day.

We encourage the governor and the General Assembly to approve legislation that will address these health challenges that threaten the vitality of our region and the commonwealth.

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