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Cost of addiction in Oklahoma: An estimated $7.2 billion per year

Drug treatment programs for addicted Oklahomans often are inadequate and overloaded.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: March 10, 2012

Addiction costs Oklahoma and its residents an estimated $7.2 billion a year.

That's more than the state government's budget of $6.7 billion.

That's roughly $1,900 for every man, woman and child in the state. It's enough to create about 273,000 median-wage jobs, or to build nine skyscrapers like Oklahoma City's Devon tower.

It's not just a matter of money. The abuse of street and prescription drugs, alcohol, tobacco and other addictive substances exacts a terrible toll on people's health, well-being and quality of life.

“The bottom line is, we're witnessing this crisis, this silent cancer that is just growing,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.

The problem is spreading through every stratum of society: poor, middle-class, wealthy; rural, urban and suburban.

The direct and indirect costs are enormous. Incarceration chews up tax dollars. Business productivity plummets. Families crumble. Crime festers.

Government, churches and private ventures offer a variety of treatment and recovery programs, but evidence indicates they are inadequate and overloaded.

Addiction touches just about everyone in some way: a friend or family member struggling with substance abuse, a crime tied to drug use, a workplace accident caused by an addled employee.

Last year, the federal government reported Oklahoma had the nation's highest percentage of adolescents and adults who abused prescription drugs over a 12-month period — about 8 percent, or nearly 240,000 people.

Part of the problem, Weaver said, is a complacent public.

“It seems like they've grown immune to the drug issues,” Weaver said.

“They think that they've heard it so much, is it really even out there? The scary part is, it's probably affecting more lives in our state than at any time ever in history. Ever.”

Cost of complacency

The $7.2 billion cost estimate was calculated by the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, which tracks substance abuse trends.

Direct costs account for an estimated $1.8 billion a year — spending on hospital care, doctors, police and prisons, for example.

Indirect costs account for another $5.4 billion in diminished productivity, work and goods never produced and people who die or fall ill.

“In the oil fields of Oklahoma, if you've got oil workers who miss work because they're drunk or on meth, they still pump the oil, but they have to hire more people,” said Rick Harwood, the association's research director.

“Maybe they overstaff because they know that one out of 20 is going to be absent on a given day. That's a cost that somebody has to pay, one way or another, and usually those increases in costs are passed on.”

A yearlong study by a task force of Oklahoma lawmakers and state leaders reached similar conclusions.

The 2005 report said Oklahoma pays more than $3 billion annually in direct costs related to untreated and under-treated people with addictions and mental illness. Indirect human costs added $5 billion to the toll.

The group estimated that 200,000 Oklahoma workers dealing with depression and addiction were costing employers $600 million annually in additional medical expenses alone.

“If you think about vibrant communities and a good economy, we have to have healthy and engaged brains ready to work,” said Terri White, commissioner of the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department.

In 2010, parental neglect accounted for 88 percent of the 18,000 children removed from their homes by the courts and the state Department of Human Services.

“Untreated addiction is a major part of that, and it could've been prevented if those parents had received treatment,” White said.

White added that one of the keys to confronting Oklahoma's addiction crisis is dealing with teenage drinking.

The part of a person's brain that handles critical thinking and decision-making is the prefrontal cortex.

It typically does not become fully developed until a person reaches the age of 20 to 25.

Alcohol impairs its development.

“Significant alcohol use can actually permanently damage or stunt the growth or our prefrontal cortex,” White said.

“One of the most dangerous things that happens is underage drinking.”

Certain risk factors are found frequently among people struggling with substance abuse.

Research shows that family history and genetics account for about 60 percent of the risk of addiction.

Blogger: Pat Nichols discusses addiction

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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State population age 12 and older 2,927,119

Alcohol use in past month45.66% 1,336,523

Tobacco use in past month34.82% 1,019,223

Binge alcohol use in past month 22.34% 653,918

Illicit drug use in past month 8.94% 261,684

Nonmedical use of painkillers in past year 8.13% 237,975

Cocaine use in past year 1.51%44,199

Nearly half of all Oklahomans aged 12 and above use some form of psychoactive drugs at least occasionally, according to a federal survey of drug use in America completed in 2009. The most frequently used substance is alcohol, followed by tobacco, street drugs and prescription painkillers.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration


TOP 10

New Mexico27.0

West Virginia 25.8

Nevada 19.6




Rhode Island17.2

Florida 16.5



U.S. average11.9

Oklahoma ranks among the top 10 states for number of drug overdose deaths, with 15.8 for every 100,000 residents in 2008. Oklahoma's rate is higher than those in any surrounding state except New Mexico.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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