Alcoholism Is Business' Business

The war on drugs has gotten all the hype in recent years, but alcoholism is still the nation's most serious addiction. True, casual drinking is no longer as fashionable as it once was. But alcoholism's toll remains appallingly high: Some 18 million Americans abuse alcohol, and more than 100,000 die prematurely each year from alcohol-related causes. A recent federal study conservatively estimated that alcoholism costs the nation $86 billion a year.

Business picks up most of the tab. Virtually every company has workers with a drinking problem, often veteran employees in executive or other critical positions. When their alcoholism goes untreated, it costs a bundle. Problem drinkers don't pull their weight in the office, are often chronically late or absent, and file $4,600 more in health claims a year than other employees. Their families' doctor bills are much higher, too. Meanwhile, the company pays full salary and benefits for an employee who is fully functional only some of the time.

In the Eighties, many corporations developed generous programs to help alcoholic employees recover, often with gratifying results. But now the progress against Corporate America's biggest drug problem is being threatened. Although few companies are eliminating alcohol treatment benefits entirely, many are hiring outside vendors to manage care. In many cases, alcoholics are denied the treatment they need because it's "too expensive."

This is bad business. Limiting treatment may seem to save money. But the one-time expense of helping an alcoholic recover is a fraction of the long-term potential cost. Companies such as General Motors Corp. have found that when the job is done right, the benefits exceed the costs by 3 to 1. Business is right to be concerned about the cost of alcoholism treatment. But the key concern should be effectiveness.