Thirty years ago, when I first started in public relations, corporate social responsibility programs were mainly company-funded foundations that donated money to various charities and organizations. There wasn’t necessarily a strategy behind these efforts — it was just understood that charity was part of doing business.
While these programs have become incredibly sophisticated — MAC’s Viva Glam Fund, for example, engages the social consciousness of today’s customers and their willingness to reward companies that give back to society — it is time for them to evolve to drive social change and highlight often underfunded and overlooked issues. The misuse of opioids, leading to addiction and stigma, is an excellent candidate.
It is difficult to escape news of opioid misuse and addiction. Although recent estimates suggest that opioid-related overdose deaths are leveling off, the numbers are still staggering. In 2018, there were more than 74,000 overdose deaths in the United States, nearly two-thirds of them due to opioids.
Successful efforts to curb this wave cite engaging the community to overcome the stigma associated with substance abuse disorder and tapping into private and public resources to support that. The response of corporate America to this deadly health issue seems lacking.
Why should companies on the Fortune 100, 500, or 1,000 lists take a stand on reducing stigma associated with opioid misuse and supporting the recovery of those struggling with addiction? In part because opioid misuse affects corporate life: research suggests that workers battling substance use disorder miss nearly 29 days of work each year, and nearly 9 of 10 overdose deaths are among working-age people. Some of them — and their family members — undoubtedly work for U.S. corporations.
An original investigation led by researchers from Stanford University and Harvard University uncovered many areas across the country that are hotspots for opioid overdoses. These include places where opioid deaths have been climbing, including many New England states, the Midwest, as well as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. Some of the leading companies in America are headquartered in these states. Clearly, more companies need to support this issue because their employees, customers, and even shareholders are touched by the overdose crisis. Their future workforce will certainly be affected as well.
American corporations can play a vital role in combating this pressing problem through better education and awareness among their employee base and within their communities. There isn’t a shortage of funding for corporate social responsibility. According to a 2015 report, Fortune Global 500 firms were allocating approximately $20 billion a year on corporate social responsibility.
Following tragedies involving opioids within each of their corporate families, iHeartMedia and WPP, which I work with, leveraged their combined marketing power and behavior-change expertise to create the National Opioid Action Coalition along with other partners. The coalition supports municipal, state, and federal opioid misuse and addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts by elevating the conversation around stigma. Other companies, like Walgreens (WBA) and Humana (HUM), are also putting resources toward addressing opioid addiction. But it’s time for more corporate champions to get behind this issue if we expect to see meaningful, life-saving change.
There isn’t a magic way to highlight the complexity of the problem and reduce the stigma of substance use disorder. But by increasing the number of corporate champions and their funding focused on this issue, we can help raise awareness about risk-factors associated with addiction and about evidence-based interventions. We can also shine a light on the effect that opioid misuse has on the health of individuals and their communities.
We have an opportunity to recognize addiction as a human problem and commit to reducing the stigma associated with it. Corporations owe it to their employees and their boards to normalize the investment in problems that affect their work forces in an immediate way. These are our colleagues, our teammates, our business units, our direct reports, and our customers. We must do more.
Kate Cronin leads Ogilvy’s Health Practice. Ogilvy is part of WPP, one of the founding partners of the National Opioid Action Coalition.