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Boeing arrest points to U.S. workplace drug problems

File photo of Osprey assembly line at Boeing's Ridley Park plant in Pennsylvania
File photo of Osprey assembly line at Boeing's Ridley Park plant in Pennsylvania

By Anna Yukhananov

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The arrest of more than three dozen people on drug charges at a Boeing military aircraft plant highlights the growing problem of prescription drug abuse by U.S. workers, experts said on Friday.

Federal authorities on Thursday charged 37 people, all but one of them current or former Boeing employees, with selling or trying to buy painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs at the company's suburban Philadelphia plant.

The federal drug raid on the plant that makes key U.S. military aircraft followed four years of stealth operations as agents infiltrated the factory and found workers to cooperate in undercover deals, authorities said.

But outside such investigations, detecting prescription drug abuse among U.S. employees is generally harder than it is for other kinds of illicit drug use, such as marijuana or cocaine.

Many employer drug tests now in use would not catch workers abusing painkillers or some other prescription medications.

Only 12 percent of the 4.5 million drug tests conducted last year tested for Oxycontin, a powerful painkiller, according to Quest Diagnostics, the biggest U.S. drug tester for employers. Oxycontin was one of the four types of prescription drugs found at the Boeing factory.

Also, three-quarters of all drug tests happen before someone is hired, Quest said, making it difficult to detect workers who get addicted to drugs on the job.

Even with the gaps in testing, evidence shows that prescription drug abuse on the job is on the rise.

Forty percent more American workers tested positive for prescription opiates, or painkillers, in 2009, than in 2005, said Quest.

Those drugs were also linked to more workplace accidents, the company said.

"If you think about the profile of the typical prescription drug user, they're not going to be typical of other illicit drug use. It's going to be in the normal places, like workplaces, colleges," said John Challis, vice president of treatment services at the Daytop Village drug treatment facility in New York. "That report about Boeing is inclusive of that."

ACTION BY OBAMA ADMINISTRATION

While prescription drug abuse usually makes headlines when tied to celebrities, experts say it is not surprising the problem has spread beyond Hollywood.

Some 2.7 percent of Americans reported using prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in 2010, according to a yearly survey released earlier this month by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.

The numbers treated for prescription painkiller abuse rose 400 percent over the past decade, according to 2010 figures.

Such statistics prompted President Barack Obama's administration in April to launch a fight against what it called a prescription drug abuse epidemic.

No study has looked at which industries have the highest incidence of prescription drug abuse.

But U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Rusty Payne said, "These problems with prescription drugs, the addiction rates, the abuse rates, are happening in a lot of places that would surprise you.

"These are people who don't fit the profile of a typical drug user," Payne said.

Federal drug regulations do not require testing for prescription drug abuse for federal employees. But a July meeting of a SAMHSA advisory committee recommended the government reconsider its decision.

At the Boeing plant, 23 of the 37 arrested were charged with the illegal selling of drugs, rather than using them.

"(The Boeing plant) I imagine was seen as a network where you could have a captive audience and make sales," said Challis. "(But) it's an example of how much it (prescription drug abuse) has permeated into everyday life."

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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