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Worker drug testing works, but maybe not as much as bosses think

Employers screen their workers and job applicants with the expectation that testing will deter worker drug use. It's a cause-and-effect relationship that many worksites rely on, and a belief that fuels a multibillion-dollar drug-testing industry. A study from the University of California Irvine, "Workplace Drug Testing and Worker Drug Use," Health Services Research (online), 2006, reported by Newswise, examines alternative explanations to test the link between drug testing and lower rates of substance abuse.

"My results don't definitively prove that drug testing directly reduces drug use, but they are the strongest evidence to date," said Christopher Carpenter, a health economist at UC-Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business. Other workplace drug policies--like a written "zero tolerance" standard or employee assistance programs--don't explain away the association between testing and less worker drug use.

Carpenter considered the health profile of employees at worksites with lower drug-use rates to determine if healthier workers self-select workplaces that are more likely to screen their employees. Because other policies and workforce characteristics likely dampen drug use to some degree, and because previous research did not account for those effects, Carpenter says, past studies may have overstated the testing-drug use link. And, failing to account for other workplace characteristics and drug policies may bloat the testing-drug use association by as much as 25 percent, Carpenter said. That's valuable information for budget-conscious personnel managers who are on the fence as they weigh the costs and benefits of establishing a drug-testing program.

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