Drug use among American workers has declined dramatically over the last 25 years, although the rate of positive test results for opiates and some other drugs continues to climb, according to a large new study of workplace drug tests conducted by Quest Diagnostics (NYSE: DGX). Opiates include prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and oxymorphone,
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Quest Diagnostics’ Drug Testing Index (DTI), which coincides with the passage of the Drug-Free Workplace Act in 1988.
The Act led to widespread drug testing of workers by government agencies and private employers in the United States. It also helped create a billion dollar a year industry and was a boon to drug screening companies such as Quest Diagnostics.
The new DTI analysis examined over 125 million urine drug screens of workers performed by Quest Diagnostics between 1988 and 2012. The company tested for 20 commonly abused drugs, including marijuana, opiates and cocaine.
From 1998 to 2012, the “positivity rate” for those drugs fell by 74%, from 13.6% of workers in 1988 to just 3.5% in 2012.
“Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index provides the best evidence to date that the Drug-Free Workplace Act and the public and private initiatives it helped to spur have led to steep declines in drug use among much of the American workforce,” said Laura Shelton, executive director, Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association.
“While more needs to be done to reduce illicit drug use by workers, we should take heart from the tremendous progress employers have made to create safer workplaces for millions of Americans.”
Despite the declines in overall drug use, the DTI analysis also found that the positivity rate for some drugs has increased.
Positivity rates for prescription opioid medicines in the U.S. workforce increased steadily over the last decade – more than doubling for hydrocodone and hydromorphone and up 71% for oxycodone.
Positivity rates for amphetamines, including amphetamine and methamphetamine, nearly tripled in the workforce over the last decade (196% higher) and are now at their highest level since 1997.
The positivity rate for amphetamine itself, including prescription medications such as Adderall, has more than doubled in the last 10 years.
The DTI report also found that changing positivity rates often mirrored larger developments in drug use, as well as national prescribing trends. For instance, a decline in drug positives for methamphetamine observed in 2005 roughly coincided with federal and state efforts to crackdown on “meth labs” and to put over-the-counter medicines – such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine – behind the pharmacy counter.
“Our data shows that an increasing number of workers are testing positive for certain prescription drugs, such as opiates and stimulants, reflecting the increased use, and potentially abuse, of prescription medications,” said Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, a business of Quest Diagnostics.
The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires federal contractors to agree to provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a federal agency. Although the Act did not mandate drug testing, many federal agencies and private employers subsequently began testing “safety-sensitive” employees such as truck drivers, train operators, airline workers and nuclear power plant workers.