Americans and their Drugs

In America drugs are everywhere: Both the good and the bad, legal and illicit, are loaded into every aspect of our daily lives and culture: cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, marijuana, steroids, Viagra, and antibiotics. Almost 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug and more than half take two1. Prescription drugs alone also kill more people every year than car accidents. And when it comes to opioid and illicit drug use, America leads the world. Is that the deadliest drug in the U.S.?

Drugs are also an important part of what keeps us alive: They block pain, kill bacteria, and relieve the crippling burdens of anxiety and depression. They are important part of how our medical treatment is provided. Then there’s illegal drugs: Many of them are dangerous and of unknown manufacture and ingredient.

Illicit drugs are also intimately intertwined with much death, destruction, crime, and bizarre behavior:

  • Heroin use is at epidemic levels, overdose deaths have been increasing and doubling in many states2
  • Abuse of prescription painkillers are also epidemic and “horrorific”3
  • Bath salts AKA flakka has led to attacks of “superhuman” strength and even acts of cannabalism4
  • Spice and K2 AKA synthetic marijuana – but far more powerful than actual marijuana – are turning users into zombies on the streets5
  • Cocaine and crack have caused a shooting war on the streets6 and a corrupting of law enforcement agencies7; overdoses have also been on the rise8
  • As methamphetamine seizures by law enforcement are on the rise9 even a Catholic priest gets caught peddling crystal10
  • We’re facing an overdose crisis fueled by a drug 50 times more potent than heroin11

The Worst of It

As bad as all of the above is, this isn’t even the worst of it.

The drugs that create the most death and damage of all aren’t even illegal. One, alcohol, is associated with the most lethal violence against intimate partners, spouses, and children, the most homicides, and it makes the user twice as likely to attempt suicide12. At present, Americans are drinking themselves to death at record rates13. The other, tobacco, is the deadliest of all drugs, killing 480,000 annually and cutting their users’ lives short by 10 years over people who don’t smoke. And for those who don’t smoke, second hand smoke kills about 42,000 of them a year. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Unlike all of the other drugs listed, tobacco is the only one of them that when used responsibly can still have serious and deadly impact.


The alcohol death rate is currently at levels that have not been seen in 35 years and have increased by 37 percent since 2002. These alcohol-induced causes include alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis. What it does not include is deaths from drunk driving, other accidents, and homicides committed while under the influence of alcohol. Add those numbers up and the death toll rises over 100 percent to over 90,00014.

While it is overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers that public health experts have focused on in recent years, and they have risen rapidly since the early 2000s, alcohol has killed more than heroin and prescription painkillers combined. And it isn’t just that more people are drinking, more people are drinking more as per capita consumption has been increasing since the late 1990s. The biggest change? Women – they are drinking more and binge drinking more. Because of gender differences in body structure and chemistry, women absorb more alcohol and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies. When drinking equal amounts, women have higher alcohol levels in their blood than men. Specific health effects include the disruption of the menstrual cycle and an increase of infertility.


In the U.S., five things kill more people than anything else: heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke, and unintentional injuries like car accidents and medication overdoses. Altogether, these five are the cause of almost two-thirds of all deaths. In nearly all cases, tobacco use can either increase or exacerbate these conditions.

Cigarettes contain about 600 ingredients and when they burn they generate more than 7,000 chemicals15. Many are poisonous and at least 69 of them cause cancer. This is also true whether you smoke a pipe, cigar, or hookah. Cigars have higher levels of carcinogens, toxins and tar and hookahs produce more carbon monoxide than cigarettes. Tobacco also negatively affects the central nervous system, the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, the integumentary system (skin, hair, and nails), the digestive system, and sexuality and reproductive systems.

Addiction Made Easy

One of the problems with alcohol and tobacco is that they are both so readily available. The sheer amount of liquor and convenience stores, bars, restaurants, and other outlets tends to make people smoke and drink more. Heavy and binge drinking is also on the rise. Socioeconomic factors and social norms also play a role. People who are educated and those with means to imbibe are more likely to drink and binge drink. And within their social group drinks, people are even more likely to do so. College drinking has increased as well. Also, if you have a dependence on alcohol you are much more likely to abuse drugs and vice versa.

What Can Be Done?

Laws that hold bars and restaurants responsible for the overdrinking of their patrons is one possibility. Screening for alcohol dependency is another. Another is taxes: Many studies have shown that higher prices for alcohol has a direct effect on excessive and binge drinking. It also has a positive effect on alcohol-related health outcomes. Every year excessive alcohol consumption accounts for approximately 79,000 deaths and 2.3 million years of potential life lost (about 29 years lost per death)16.

Clearly, there is much at stake here. Actions that include law changes, screenings, and taxation are steps that will affect all, whether you drink or smoke or not. How responsibility society should accept is, of course, a whole other discussion. Ultimately, the question comes down to this:

How much death and consequence are we willing to accept as a society for drug and alcohol use and what are we willing to sacrifice to fight it? There are no easy answers.

If you or a loved one have an addiction to alcohol, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery within 30 days. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.



What Is the Deadliest Drug in the U.S.?