The Most Expensive
Forbes, October 3, 2006
all the rage. Life experts popping up everywhere
from group-speaking engagements to The Oprah
Winfrey Show are extolling the dangers of
overdoing activities from shopping and watching
television to surfing the Web, drinking coffee
and even daydreaming. Some even include excess
complaining on the list.
has some sort of [addiction], whether it's
constantly checking your finances or just biting
your nails," says Judith Miller, an author and
speaker on the subject. "The problem is doing
these things beyond their intended use, and they
dominate your life."
Perhaps. But despite the hype, the overall
economic effects of "soft addictions" pale in
comparison with traditional "hard addictions"
like drug abuse and alcoholism. While common
sense says that those who spend work hours
popping out to the store for a new pair of shoes
or surfing the Web for personal use probably
cost employers something in lost productivity,
there's no definitive proof that employee
"downtime" is any more prevalent than it was a
generation ago, when telephone and watercooler
banter was in.
To be sure,
there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest
that people can flirt with financial distress
when overindulging in their favorite hobbies or
escapes. Miller says the average person she's
met on her speaking and research travels spends
$15,000 a year on his or her soft addictions,
and that no one has ever spent less than $3,000.
precious little scientific quantification going
on here to enable economists to determine how
much these problems really cost. Take sex
addiction. It's good for headlines whenever it
gets discussed, and it's considered a serious
malady by the medical profession, but no formal
cost studies exist.
an online service that compiles lists of
treatment facilities around the country,
estimated that the percentage of U.S. men
addicted to pornography has grown to 20%, from
6%, in the last ten years. That sounds
plausible--the Internet's been growing at an
explosive rate during that time. But how much
does this cost the economy? No one can say.
"We don't have
government funds to carve out as much data for
things like sex addictions, exercise and
others," says John Fitzgerald of the Center for
such as New York-based tech advisory firm Basex
and outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and
Christmas have tried to quantify the
productivity costs of employees distracted by
online activity, such as fantasy sports. But the
methodology, which is simply to multiply average
employee wages by an estimated number of minutes
per day online, essentially treats people as
robots who would normally spend every moment in
full concentration mode. That's never been the
case. Why not look into how much productivity is
supposedly lost by bathroom breaks or endless
problem, from an economic perspective, is that
despite all these ills attacking the labor
force, government stats show the average worker
is twice as productive today as he or she was 40
years ago, thanks to technology, meaning that an
occasionally distracted employee is a small
price for a business to pay for so much more
studies compiled by various government health
agencies show that the five most-chronicled
"hard" addictions--alcohol, drugs, tobacco,
gambling and eating disorders--are what society
truly pays for. Those maladies cost taxpayers
and businesses $590 billion annually, primarily
in lost productivity and government-assisted
medical treatment. That's about 5% of the
national debt. And it doesn't count the
sometimes bankrupting amounts of money those
people personally spend on drugs, liquor,
cigarettes or at the craps tables. Economically,
those purchases are treated as pure transfer
payments, no different than any other form of
Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
estimates that a combined $276 billion was
spent or lost in 2005 on health care, lost
productivity, premature death, auto accidents
and crime relating to drug and alcohol abuse.
Approximately three-quarters of that money came
from public sources, SAMHSA found.
About $18 billion
of the tab went for treatment, even though less
than 15% of the estimated 22 million Americans
who engage in substance abuse actually seek it.
recognize they have a problem. Plus, there's the
stigma," says Dr. Jack Stein, a SAMHSA director.
He favors early intervention, including
questioning of hospital patients by medical
professionals who are qualified to detect an
alcohol or drug problem.
believes that standard inpatient treatment for a
set period of time, or until an addict is
"cured," is ineffective. He's found that with
his patients, brief periodic follow-up visits
make a big difference in keeping them sober.
"The real issue
is keeping people connected with their treatment
after their main rehab; it should be more about
long-term management." he says.
smoking, despite a shift in public attitudes
over the years that's raised its social stigma,
costs taxpayers $157 billion annually in medical
expenses and lost productivity, according to the
Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are some
outward signs that more people are kicking the
habit. The 378 billion cigarettes officially
sold in the U.S. last year, according to the
Treasury Department, represent a 21% drop from
1998, the year a group of state attorneys
general secured a landmark settlement against
the tobacco industry. The lawyers were quick to
take credit for the sales decline in a statement
earlier this year, claiming that by "focusing
attention on the conduct of tobacco companies
and the dangers of cigarette smoking," they
compelled more people to quit.
But given that
the Surgeon General's warning on smoking came in
1964, it's doubtful that many people needed a
reminder of cigarettes' health risks 34 years
later. More likely, the sky-high taxes imposed
by federal, state and local governments sent a
good chunk of the business underground.
disorders carry a $107 billion price tag,
according to the National Institute of Health.
The estimated 39 million workdays lost to
obesity-related problems cost businesses about
$4 billion annually in lost productivity. And to
think, some people criticized Wal-Mart Stores
people ) for considering a policy of hiring
addictions aren't the only serious problems.
Compulsive gambling, defined by the American
Psychological Association as a mental health
disorder of impulse control, accounts for $40
billion in annual losses from counseling,
productivity declines and social services,
according to an estimate by the National
Gambling Impact Study Commission, a body created
by Congress to study the problem.
Cutting down on
shopping or television may make sense for plenty
of people, but it's probably not a life-or-death
decision. And neither your boss nor your fellow
taxpayers are likely to care--at least not until
there's research out there that shows they