According to the U.S. Department of Justice, opioids include heroin and prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone or Vicodin, codeine, morphine, methadone, fentanyl, and others. These drugs are designed to reduce pain and suppress coughs, but with increased dosages, they also cause intense euphoria, a high that results in a strong desire for the next high, and so it goes.
Fentanyl, however, is 50-100 times more potent than heroin and is used to adulterate street drugs, often without the user’s knowledge. One of its derivatives is used to anesthetize elephants.
In 2021, an average of 295 people died per day due to drug overdoses, the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45. Over 65% of those deaths were attributed to opioids and are driven by the synthetic opioid fentanyl. A very small dose, just 2 milligrams, may be fatal. By comparison, a sweetener packet at a restaurant usually contains 1,000 milligrams.
So, what does this have to do with the restaurant industry? Unfortunately, everything.
The Restaurant Industry and Drug Overdoses
According to Restaurant Business, food service workers experience one of the highest rates of drug overdoses, surpassed only by construction workers. However, while the restaurant industry has long been considered an environment ripe for addictions, overdoses were rare.
Now, they occur all too frequently. In August 2021, six overdose deaths caused by cocaine laced with fentanyl happened on the North Fork of Long Island within one week. A common thread was that they worked in the hospitality industry or associated with those employed in the areas of restaurants and bars. Little Creek Oysters, a local eatery, was the first to sound the alarm, alerting everyone they could via social media as a public service announcement.
In 2022, five people died from a fentanyl overdose in a Denver apartment, the largest number of overdoses the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency ever saw in one setting. All were employed at restaurants.
An Environment Prone to Addictions
Restaurant and construction workers have two things in common—long hours on their feet and stress injuries that can occur on the job. Restaurant employees, however, work in an environment known for partying and drinking alcohol. They work long shifts, sometimes until 2 a.m., sleep late, and then return for the next evening’s shift.
It’s a culture that has viewed partying as part and parcel of the industry, with drinking and drugs part of the work culture.
Education & Prevention
Conversations centered around substance abuse can be difficult for managers to have with staff. Like Little Creek Oysters, as difficult as it may be, restaurants across the nation are sounding the alarm. Staff meetings now consist of discussions regarding mental health and alternatives to drug and alcohol use. They are also stopping the standard practice of shift drinks after work and learning how to treat an overdose.
An example is Comedor, an Austin restaurant that puts the money typically spent on staff’s shift drinks to season tickets to Austin FC soccer games. Philip Speer, owner, and chef, told Restaurant Business, “It’s just changing the culture, and there’s so many ways you can change the culture.” The restaurant also hosts free yoga classes and has a running club.
One of the most important gifts you can give employees with opioid addiction is time—time to get help. Opioid addiction is treatable with counseling and medications.
An example of restaurants taking action includes Red Lobster. Their program focuses on prevention and education and includes confidential counseling services. The Cheesecake Factory also provides free mental health care and a virtual alcohol and opioid addiction program. Staff have access to 30 days of alcohol or drug rehabilitation leave.
Naloxone & Test Strips
In an effort to save lives, various states implemented laws to make it easier to obtain naloxone, also known as Narcan, in 2023. This opioid antagonist can prevent overdose deaths if administered in a timely manner. These laws protect lay people and vary significantly by state. Your state law can be found at LegislativeAnalysis.org.
Organizations are also distributing test strips at bars and restaurants. These strips test for fentanyl, enabling users to check drugs before using. Others are training bartenders and managers on the best way to administer naloxone during a suspected overdose.
Are there resources for restaurant workers struggling with abuse or addiction?
Restaurant Business shared these substance abuse resources:
- Ben’s Friends: A peer support group for those in the food and beverage industry struggling with addictions.
- Restaurant After Hours: Mental health advocacy, resources, and support for the hospitality industry.
- Serving Those Serving: A nonprofit offering support for hospitality workers and employee assistance resources for addiction.
- Mental Health First Aid: A training course teaching about substance-use and mental health issues.
Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems: Resources and programs to help those in hospitality create a healthy work culture.