Liz McCormick Published

Four Percent of W.Va. Adults are Prescription Drug Abusers


The country will turn its eyes to Charleston this week as President Obama makes a trip to the capital city Wednesday. He’ll hold a town hall style meeting with West Virginians focused on substance abuse. The issue, however, has weighed heavy on the minds of state lawmakers over the past several years and continues to be a topic of conversation in the Legislature. During interim meetings Sunday, legislators began to look at the effects substance abuse is having on the state’s workforce and how they can combat the problem.

We all know substance abuse is a problem in West Virginia, but exactly how much of a problem?

Seven members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Workforce Investment for Economic Development heard Sunday from Jay Otto – a research scientist at the Center for Health and Safety Culture at Montana State University.

Otto says West Virginians often misjudge the prevalence of addicted individuals in the state.

“So in our survey work, we find that often people drastically overestimate let’s say the number of adults who are misusing prescription drugs. It is high, the survey work in West Virginia indicating it’s in the 4 percent range, that’s a very large number, but it’s by no means what sometimes people perceive it to be as being 40, 50, 60, 70 percent,” he noted, “So the key message is most adults do not abuse substances and we’re very concerned with those who do.”

Otto says while West Virginians perceive substance abuse as a major problem, the state actually falls around the middle of substance abuse usage compared to the rest of the country.

“In some ways, we’re at the top of the list sometimes in terms of rates, and rates can be hard to interpret, because it also depends upon size of the state. We’re actually not at the highest rate for the misuse of prescription drugs as a percentage; there are many states that are higher than us.

What cannot be denied, though, it the high rate of overdose deaths. According to a 2015 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there are 34 overdose deaths for every 100,000 people in the state.

“We are at a high rate of fatality overdoses associated with that. That can be hard to interpret, that can also be because we’re very rural, so individuals don’t have fast access to emergency services or getting to a hospital, so it’s very complicated when we look at something like a fatality rate as opposed to a usage rate. In terms of our usage levels, we’re not at the highest levels.”

So how do we combat it? Otto told lawmakers one of the best resources to battle substance abuse is talking about it in the workplace.

“Sometimes we have misperceptions that the work of prevention is only with youth, and a big message we need to get out is no, we want to do prevention across the age span, and there’s a lot we can do with adults. Adults aren’t in school, but they are in workplaces, so workplaces become a great opportunity to do some things.”

Otto says there’s not a silver bullet to solve substance abuse problems, but there are strategies to bring about prevention, and he says lawmakers can have a big hand in that.

“Continuing to invest in treatment across the state, or prevention across the state, which is growing and becoming more and more effective every day. I think looking at some of those big picture policy issues, in particular around the tobacco tax and an alcohol tax. We know that at the state level, these are things that can have a tremendous impact by increasing the cost of those substances, we will decrease use.”

Delegate Paul Espinosa, a Republican from Jefferson County and the chairman of the committee on Workforce Investment for Economic Development says he’s eager to continue the conversation this session, particularly about rehabilitation for employees.

“I think some of our members raised a very important issue from an employer perspective is how do you work through some of those issues related to individuals who have been convicted of a crime, particularly if there was a felony conviction,” Espinosa explained, “I know many businesses that would very much like to give those folks a second chance; you know particularly if they’ve demonstrated if they’ve gone through an appropriate program to address those issues they have with substance abuse, however there are liability issues I know many businesses are concerned about. So those are certainly things that I anticipate this committee will continue to look at and the legislature as a whole I think will need to examine.”

So far, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler has committed to introducing a tobacco tax increase to help fund substance abuse treatment across the state. Members of the majority have not yet released any specific ideas for the upcoming session on how to take on the issue.