Help employees with alcohol, vaping, and opioid use

Public health campaigns going on this month: April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and Drug Take Back Day is April 27.

We are a substance using culture. Even if we don’t personally use, others around us do, and our kids are dealing with this, too. Did you know that middle and high schoolers are vaping nicotine and marijuana in such high numbers that federal and state government agencies are calling it an epidemic?

As part of your employee wellness initiatives, be sure to give attention to the topic of substance use, for both adults and teenagers. I know it’s not something we normally openly talk about at work, but we should. Why? Consider these statistics:

  • One out of every 25 teens (age 12–17) struggle with a substance use disorder;
  • One out of every seven young adults (age 18–25) struggle with a substance use disorder;
  • One out of every eight adults struggle with a substance use disorder; and
  • One out of every 10 people (over 12) have used an illicit drug in the past 30 days.

Those numbers were only those that could be classified as having a disorder (or the last one about using illicit drugs). Imagine how much higher the numbers are for using legal substances in general?

Basically, our culture uses substances, so let’s talk about it and provide resources in case anyone needs them.

Employee engagement

Substances are impacting employee engagement whether we pay attention to them or not. If an employee is personally struggling with substance use, or if they have a loved one at home that is, their health and well-being will be affected.

Common substances


Alcohol is the most frequently consumed substance of use and misuse in Wisconsin. — Wisconsin Department of Health

Alcohol is everywhere, especially here in Wisconsin. It’s a social symbol. We use it to socialize, connect, celebrate, and relax, and while many manage their alcohol use well, many others do not.

The misuse of alcohol contributes to health and social issues, including things like motor vehicle crashes, injuries, diseases, relationship abuse, child abuse, violent crimes, and death.

While we often do not want to consider the health risks to our mind and body, drinking alcohol does impact us, especially if we heavily drink on a regular basis. It can weaken our immune system, damage our digestive system, including the liver and pancreas, and it can contribute to developing certain types of cancers.

In 2014, 30% of all traffic fatalities were alcohol related. — Wisconsin Department of Health

Does this mean we have to promote not drinking? No. But we can provide things like:

  • Education about alcohol intake;
  • Tips for managing alcohol use;
  • Tips for drinking responsibly;
  • Tips for helping our kids with alcohol; and
  • Resources for getting help if needed.

Tobacco, nicotine, and vaping

The rates of tobacco use have lessened over the years but it is still a factor, and lately, e-cigarette use (or “vaping”) has gained rapidly in popularity, especially among middle and high school age children. So even if your employees are not personally using nicotine, their kids may be.

E-cigarette use among middle and high school students increased tenfold between 2011 and 2015 … and use has surpassed current use of every other tobacco product overall, including conventional cigarettes. — CDC

Using tobacco or nicotine in any form (cigarettes, chew, or vaping) has physical and mental health risks. Most of us know the health risks of tobacco use, but not vaping. Vaping is being marketed as healthier or less risky, but there are risks, especially for kids:

  • They contain chemicals and heavy metals (nickel, tin, lead), which can damage lungs.
  • They can alter brain development, and affect memory, concentration, learning, self-control, attention, and mood.
  • They are very addictive, and can increase the risk of other types of addiction.
  • The most popular vaping product among kids is called JUUL (and the kids may call vaping “JUULing.”) The amount of nicotine in one JUUL cartridge is roughly equal to the amount of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes.



Marijuana and vaping

Yes, you read that correctly. Pot isn’t the same anymore. The kids today are vaping it, and as early as 9 years old. In September 2018, CBS News ran the following story: “2 million U.S. teens are vaping marijuana, report finds.” According to the Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network, “Almost 1 in 11 Tweens and Teens Vape Cannabis.” They are vaping it to get high, and to use as a sleep aid. Since it’s not a joint (smoking the cannabis plant), it does not have a scent, so parents are usually unaware that their tween/teen is doing it.

According to the CDC, marijuana use may have long lasting or permanent effects on the developing adolescent brain. — Partnership for DrugFree Kids

Because marijuana is legal in some states and used medicinally, some assume it’s harmless, but experts are finding that there are significant health risks for kids, especially with their brain.

Further, the hit of a vape compared to a joint is much stronger. “Vaping delivers greater amounts of THC, the primary intoxicant in cannabis (marijuana), which increases the likelihood of adverse reactions, ” notes a John Hopkins Medicine report.


The use of opioids is a national public health crisis. Opioids are a type of drug often prescribed for pain management. Illegally, they are usually found in the form of heroin. They are easy to get addicted to and easy to misuse, and because of their sedating effects, they are a major cause of traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths (including both accidental and intentional overdose).

Wisconsin has created a number of public health initiatives through the Department of Health Services, the Department of Justice, and the “Dose of Reality” campaign to help people know about the severity of the problem, and resources on how to get help. The Wisconsin Department of Justice also promotes two Drug Take Back Days a year (one in the spring and one in the fall) to help educate and encourage everyone to get rid of unused medication in proper ways, since most overdose deaths come from using medication that is in the house.

How can an employer help?

All of this seems overwhelming, but as an employer (or co-worker to your peers at work), you can help! There are many resources out there that we need to help employees know about. Here are some ideas of what an employer can do to assist their employees:

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