CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming men who are alcohol-dependent earn about 5 percent less than co-workers who don't have a problem with alcohol.
They also are somewhat less likely to be in the workplace at all.
These are two of the findings from a report compiled by the University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center for the Wyoming Department of Health.
The UW report concluded that alcohol is more of an economic burden on society in Wyoming than tobacco or drug abuse.
The study estimated that elimination of alcohol abuse would save $843 million a year, based on 2010 costs. Costs were for health care, lost productivity, crime and accidents.
Elimination of tobacco would save $689 million per year, and the elimination of illegal drugs $391 million per year. Loss of productivity was highest for alcohol abuse, $589 million per year.
"Illness studies are routinely used by government agencies to justify and prioritize prevention, intervention, and research programs," the report said.
Nanette Nelson, associated research scientist at the UW center, said she and her colleagues were surprised that alcohol was the most costly. "We thought we would see tobacco to be the front-runner," she said.
Toni Cervenka of Buffalo, executive director of Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming, said her nonprofit organization will use the report to show the state Legislature that prevention programs are necessary and can save the state money in the long run.
Cervenka said she wasn't surprised at the high economic costs of substance abuse in general.
She said she formerly worked at a mental health center and learned what substance abuse was costing families. But people believe alcohol use is acceptable, she noted.
"In moderation it's OK. Studies have shown that in moderation, alcohol can be good for you," Cervenka said. But abusing alcohol to the point where the imbiber can't get to work or does show up but is not productive or has liver disease and other alcohol-related ailments, is not OK.
At that point,"it's going to cost a lot of money," she said.
"People pretty much know that tobacco causes cancer. But it's really not accepted that alcohol is harmful. That's where we have to do some training," Cervenka added.
State Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Health and Social Services. He said he wasn't surprised at the high costs in the report.
"We've known all along that this state had a problem with alcohol," Scott said. "Tobacco is a more serious problem because it's a real killer. But it doesn't cause the loss of productivity that alcohol does."
Employers are aware of the problem, he said. Many, particularly those in the oil and gas business, have a policy against hiring anybody with a substance abuse problem. The railroads have had a rule for more than 100 years to prohibit employees from using intoxicants on the job.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has authorized substance abuse prevention programs and allocated substantial sums of money to run them.
Scott said he expects further discussion of the substance abuse problem in the Legislature's budget session, which opens in February. The substance abuse prevention proponents, he said, may have to compete for money with the Medicaid and mental health programs.
Cervenka said her organization has hired professionals in every county in the state to work on the three substance abuse issues. By putting together a coalition in each county, the workers can assess what needs to be targeted locally and then use programs that have been successful elsewhere.
They may concentrate on reducing the incidence of alcohol abuse and underage drinking. The expectation is that the next survey of this type will show a reduction, Cervenka said.