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Analysis: Substance Abuse Annually Costs Tennessee Billions

Substance abuse annually costs Tennessee more than $2 billion — more than half of which is attributed to lost income from people who have fallen out of the labor market, according to an economist.

The substance abuse epidemic — most notably involving opioids — raises questions about access to treatment, how to stem the illicit use of prescription painkillers and staunch the use of illegal drugs.

But the economic impact is less understood and not generally a component of policy discussions.

Teresa Waters, chair of preventive medicine at University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center who leads a policy research group, dug into the costs associated with substance abuse.

The $2 billion cost to Tennessee includes:

  • $46 million for babies born in the state with neonatal abstinence syndrome,

  • $422.5 million for hospitalizations associated with opioid abuse, and

  • $138 million for hospitalizations with alcohol listed as the first diagnosis.

But, at $1.29 billion, the lost income from having an estimated 31,000 people, or 1 percent of the workforce, out of jobs is the biggest component.

Waters expected the economic impact to be sizable but was still surprised by the final tally — especially given the decision to take a conservative approach to the analysis.

"When I put it all together, I was like, 'wow.' It's striking. It's a wake-up; call that this is not just a sad story. This is an economic story," said Waters.

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