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By the Numbers: Mortality Rates by Drug and Alcohol Use

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Of all the drugs abused in America, several categories stand out as the most addictive and destructive to society. Statistics reveal a big-scale picture of how these drugs harm individuals and communities, offering a powerful snapshot of the importance of prevention and effective treatment.

Of the nearly 21 million Americans 12 and older who report addiction, 15.7 million report problems with alcohol. Another 7.7 million report addiction to illicit drugs, most commonly marijuana, with 4 million reporting addiction.

Other drugs widely linked to addiction include the following:

  • Pain relievers (OxyContin, Vicodin): 2 million
  • Cocaine: 896,000
  • Methamphetamine: 872,000
  • Heroin: 591,000
  • Tranquilizers (Xanax, Soma): 688,000
  • Stimulants (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications): 426,0001

Millions more Americans report drug and alcohol use. The most common substance used in America is alcohol with 138.3 million currently using, followed by marijuana with 22.2 million reporting use.1

Misuse of prescription drugs is another common problem. Anyone who uses a prescription drug without a prescription or uses it in a way other than exactly prescribed reports misuse. Currently, nearly 4 million people misuse prescription pain relievers.1 In fact, misuse of opiate-based pain relievers is driving a national epidemic of overdose deaths. In 2016, America saw the largest annual increase recorded in overdose deaths, a 19 percent jump with more than 59,000 people dying due to an opioid overdose.

Prescription pain relievers are just one substance linked to serious health problems, high rates of crime and serious withdrawal symptoms. Others include alcohol, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, benzodiazepines and opiate pain relievers. People addicted to these substances need more intense addiction treatment, including evidence-based therapies that offer psychological counseling, along with available medications.


Alcohol Abuse

One in four Americans drink at least one alcoholic beverage each and every week, and 12 percent of them have one or more drinks of alcohol each day.2 While many people handle regular, small consumption without ill effects, many people find it hard to control their habits. In fact, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one American adult in 12 is an alcoholic or an alcohol abuser.People with an alcohol use disorder cannot control how much they drink, and their lives revolve around alcohol use.3

Long-term alcohol use significantly affects the brain. For example, in one study researchers used positron emission tomography (PET imaging) to track the response of brain cells exposed to alcohol. Some study participants were heavy drinkers, but others didn’t have a history of alcohol abuse. In each person who participated, regardless of alcoholism history, a jolt of alcohol resulted in a release of pleasure chemicals (endorphins) in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain. In heavy drinkers, that big boost resulted in an intense feeling of intoxication, but the relatively sober people didn’t feel the same response.

The study indicates people who are heavy drinkers feel a more pleasurable sensation from alcohol.4

Obsessive alcohol use dramatically affects health. About 2.5 million people die each year due to illnesses and injuries directly related to drinking, and among people ages 15 to 29, 9 percent of all deaths are alcohol related.Even with the serious problems associated with alcoholism, few get the help they need. Of those questioned, 42 percent report they weren’t ready to stop drinking and 35 percent said cost barriers prevented treatment.6


Heroin Abuse and Risks

While the number of people who take heroin on a regular basis is relatively low, new evidence suggests heroin use is on the rise. Around 329,000 people reported heroin use in 2015, which was higher than numbers reported in 2002 through 2009.7 More Americans are addicted to opioid-based pain relievers, but these drugs work on the same brain receptors affected by heroin.Recent efforts to make pain relievers less available, through drug monitoring programs, and harder to use, through different pill formulations, also made the drugs more expensive. Now almost as common in suburban and rural areas as in urban populations, heroin is a cheaper and easier alternative for many people addicted to opiates.8

People who develop an addiction to heroin and prescription opioids die from various medical complications, including:

  • Overdoses
  • Organ damage
  • Infections
  • Blood-borne pathogens
  • Respiratory distress
  • Weakened immune systems
  • Kidney failure

Death rates due to heroin may rise further as communities deal with the unintended consequences of trying to limit heroin’s impact on a community. For example, people who abuse heroin often use needles, and many states limit the sale of needles in order to discourage people from using heroin. Unfortunately, when needle supplies are scarce, people share needles and then rates of infections rise. Minnesota experienced this firsthand, when 32 people were newly diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2012 alone.9 Experts there blamed the infection’s rise on heroin use, claiming the real number of infected people could be higher because only people with symptoms usually get tested.



Next to alcohol and opiate-based drugs, stimulants are another serious drug of abuse. Stimulant drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, are addictive and produce dangerous physical symptoms. Those who dabble in stimulants may not develop an addiction, but those who do face serious health concerns.

For example, one researcher found that only 10 to 20 percent of crack cocaine users become addicted.

Many can use the drug once and leave it alone. A person’s likelihood of developing a crack addiction is more closely associated to environment. For example, crack became popular in poor, inner-city neighborhoods because some people wanted an escape from depressing conditions.10


Health Effects of Stimulants

Stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine don’t pose the same risk of death as opioids because they don’t dramatically depress a person’s breathing and heart rate. In fact, research suggests that heroin and methadone are capable of causing higher death rates, when compared to standard stimulants.

But stimulants produce other physical problems, particularly damage to the heart and cardiovascular system. Also, it’s possible to consume a toxic amount of cocaine in a short period, leading to heart attacks, strokes or seizures, which can result in death. Cocaine also brings on psychological problems, leading to paranoia, irritability and possible hallucinations.11

Stimulant users might experience the following symptoms and problems:

  • Make impulsive decisions
  • Forget the details of conversations
  • React with anger, rather than reason
  • Find it difficult to learn information

Use of another stimulant, methamphetamine, brings even more serious risks to the brain. In some cases, damage is temporary. For example, some studies show users who remained free of methamphetamine for two years had brain activity levels similar to people who had never touched the drug, while healing in other portions of the brain did not recover after 14 months. These imaging studies show sobriety allows at least some parts of the brain to heal.11

Stimulant use also impacts a community. Sometimes, for example, drug cartels set up so-called “super labs” within residential districts, and they make huge amounts of methamphetamine. In other cases, people create meth in small batches, and they sell the drug to friends in a barter system.12

Another social downside of meth use is the average age of users. People are more likely to use it in their mid-20s to early 30s, meaning they may use it around children. This is damaging to the children’s health and puts them at risk for using drugs in the future. Recreational users like these are normalizing drug use for their children and tainting the environment in which their children grow up.12


Taking Action

Addiction statistics offer a global perspective on substance use, but they’re no substitute for talking about the personal side of addiction. If substance abuse is happening in your household, you need help. Please call us, and our admissions coordinators can tell you more about how treatment works and how you can motivate the person you love to heal.


1 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. “Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51, 2016. Accessed 5 June 2017.

2 Katz, Josh. “Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever.” New York Times, 5 June 2017. Accessed 5 June 2017.

3 Saad, Lydia. “Majority in U.S. Drink Alcohol, Averaging Four Drinks a Week.” Gallup, 17 Aug. 2002. Accessed 5 June 2017.

4 American Psychological Association. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorders and Their Treatment.” 2012. Accessed 5 June 2017.

5 World Health Rankings. “Alcohol Death Rate Per 100,000.” World Health Organization, 2014. Accessed 5 June 2017.

6 “Most Mental Illnesses, Substance Use Disorders Go Untreated,” September 19, 2016.

7 Haglage, Abby. “The White Collar Heroin Problem.” Daily Beast, 4 Feb. 2014. Accessed 5 June 2017.

8 Collins, Jon. “Heroin users’ dirty needles suspected in spread of Hepatitis C.” Minnesota Public Radio news, 4 Mar. 2014. Accessed 5 June 2017.

9 Sullum, Jacob. “Everything You’ve Heard About Crack And Meth Is Wrong.” Forbes, 4 Nov. 2013. Accessed 5 June 2017.

10 NIDA. “Cocaine.” 6 May 2016. Accessed 5 June 2017.

11 NIDA. “What are the long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse?” September 2013. Accessed 5 June 2017.

12 Matthews, Dylan. “Here’s what ‘Breaking Bad’ gets right, and wrong, about the meth business.” The Washington Post, 15 Aug. 2013. Accessed 5 June 2017.

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