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A $20 Billion Problem

THE authors of a study recently released by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University admit it is ''filled with numbers,'' as most studies are. They also acknowledge that numbers alone can't quantify the personal tragedy substance abuse and addiction impose on urban dwellers, or the threat they pose to both children and adults.

But this study comes close. It looks at how substance abuse impacts every aspect of life in one city - New York - including businesses, taxes, the criminal justice system, and foster care. The numbers are particular to New York, but the overall problem is not.

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The study found that substance abuse and addiction in the city cost the private and public sectors at least $20 billion in 1994, the year analyzed. That included the cost of everything from hospital stays to absent employees, criminal-court cases to homeless shelters. The federal government picked up some of the tab - $3.9 billion - primarily through programs such as Medicare and Aid to Families with Dependent Children; the city itself paid $3.8 billion. To put it another way, 21 cents of every dollar New Yorkers paid in city taxes in 1994 was related to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Another fact: Overall, only 4 percent of the $20 billion went to treat and prevent substance abuse; the other 96 percent was spent to deal with its consequences, or as CASA chairman Joseph Califano says, to clean up the mess.

What's disheartening is the realization that, as the study point out, the substance-abuse ''mess'' affects everyone: mothers who are afraid to let their children play unsupervised in the park; children who walk to school on police-protected ''safe corridors''; joggers who avoid running after dark; shopkeepers who admit customers only when they ring a doorbell.

But we shouldn't leave it at that. As CASA says, findings such as these also provide an opportunity. President Clinton, Congress, city officials, and the rest of us should look hard at that 4-percent-for-treatment-and-prevention figure and others like it. Ninety-six percent of the cost of substance abuse should not be going toward the consequences of abuse - not in New York, and not in any other city. Considerably more resources - time, energy, research, and whatever money possible - should be put into the prevention and treatment of alcohol-, tobacco-, and drug-related problems.

One more fact: According to CASA, if substance abuse in New York were reduced 20 percent, the city would have 63,000 fewer reported drug and alcohol-related felonies; 1,100 hospital beds eliminated; 670 fewer AIDS deaths, and 7,600 fewer child-abuse reports. A lot of numbers, perhaps, but ones that affect us all.

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