Addiction to drugs is an issue that has been with the human race since the beginning of recorded history. In that time, some drugs have demonstrated more staying power than others. Not too surprisingly, the top two of the 10 common addictions are products you can legally buy right off the shelf in every state in America. The third on the list is legal in a number of states, and the fourth substance on the list of most 10 common addictions is available from doctors. Let’s take a look at the addictive substances that are most commonly used in the United States today.
Just over 34 million people smoke cigarettes in the U.S. according to a study from 2017. More than 480,000 deaths are attributed to smoking each year, accounting for 20 percent of deaths even though smokers only account for 14 percent of the population. While smoking has been in a long decline, more than 16 million Americans have some kind of condition caused directly by smoking or through secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke.
The vaping trend has also given nicotine something of a second life among younger users. While data on the subject is still coming in, the misguided assumption among users is that e-cigarettes are healthier due to the lack of tobacco smoke. About 10.8 million Americans vape, and more than half of them are under 35 years of age.
It’s easy to dismiss a drug that doesn’t generate direct social harm. Nicotine, however, is also one of the toughest to quit. Two-thirds of those who have tried tobacco have become addicted, putting it in line with notoriously addictive substances we more closely associate with rehab and recovery, including cocaine and heroin.
One of the most widely tried substances in the U.S. is alcohol. Based on a 2015 survey, it’s believed that:
- 86 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have used alcohol at least once.
- 70 percent have consumed alcohol in the last year.
- 56 percent have had alcohol in the last month.
For reference, there are almost 250 million adults living in America.
Economists also regularly rank alcohol as one of the most socially destructive substances that people abuse. It is readily available, and in many circumstances, alcohol consumption is overtly encouraged by social norms.
At any rehab center in America, you’ll be able to find someone who has an alcohol-related story. This applies even at places that do not admit patients specifically for alcohol use disorders. Some drug users begin with alcohol before trying other substances.
Making alcohol especially nefarious is the fact that it jerks the body in two different directions: It functions as both a depressant and a stimulant. It also causes dopamine levels, one of the primary drivers of the human reward system, to spike. This ultimately fosters a feedback loop that’s regularly seen among the 10 common addictions on this list.
With the growing push to legalize marijuana in the U.S., we’re also seeing an increase in use disorders related to it. Social acceptability is rising, and marijuana also has a reputation for being seen as harmless, especially by the younger generations.
Of the drugs that are considered illicit by the federal government, marijuana is the most widely used. In the past month, the government estimates that more than 20 million people have used marijuana. More concerning is that marijuana use often begins at an early age; eighth-graders in 2016 reported that:
- 9.4 percent had used it in the last year.
- 5.4 percent had used it in the last month.
Approximately 456,000 marijuana-related medical emergencies were reported in 2011. It is believed that many of these incidents can be traced to the rising potency of marijuana. As the business case for weed continues to grow, we can expect efforts to engineer stronger marijuana to continue rapidly. That should be a source of concern for anyone in the rehab and recovery world.
The opioid crisis has received plenty of attention in recent years, and rightly so. What often gets lost in the media noise about this moment in American history is how much of a role prescription painkillers have played in causing it to boom. The state of Florida, for example, has pursued legal action against pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies for their role in either directly pushing painkillers on patients or in turning a blind eye to how the drugs end up in the hands of street-level dealers. According to the U.S. government, 18 million people have misused a prescription pain medicine in the last year.
A number of factors have driven the epidemic. Among them are:
- An aging U.S. population
- Changing attitudes toward pain management regimens
- Claims that drugs like OxyContin weren’t as habit-forming as predecessors and couldn’t produce the same highs
- The sense that a doctor always has a patient’s best interests in mind
- A slow social, government and industry response to the crisis as it spiraled out of control
Especially troubling is that a number of those who abuse prescription painkillers don’t stop when their physicians cut them off. Instead, they frequently seek prescription drugs sold by street dealers, heroin, other opiates, and opioids.
In many rural and underserved urban areas of America, the capacity for rehab centers to keep up with the crisis continues to be taxed. Fortunately, changing attitudes in law enforcement and the courts have at least turned the focus regarding the crisis. We’re now seeing progress in the form of:
- Good Samaritan laws to protect users who report friends’ overdoses
- Diversion programs to ensure that nonviolent users who voluntarily seek treatment won’t end up with criminal records
- An increase in the number of available recovery centers
While cocaine use has been dropping for decades, the levels that were established in the 1980s and 1990s left a lot of room for continued improvement. A coca boom in Colombia also holds out the possibility that this trend may be leveling off or about to bounce back. As of 2015, it is estimated that 968,000 Americans had tried cocaine at least once in the last year. More disturbing is the fact that some people with painkiller and opioid use disorders also utilize cocaine in order to try to manage the lows induced by those drugs.
Riding on the back of the painkiller crisis is its close relative, the heroin epidemic. Approximately 948,000 Americans reported using heroin in the last year. First-time use also rose with 170,000 sampling the drug for the first time. Heroin use is declining among teens, but the drug is becoming increasingly problematic among older populations with pain management issues.
Over the last decade, there was some hope that the crisis was abating. In 2018, though, the surge in laboratory-grade fentanyl from China put those hopes to rest.
Often laced with batches of heroin to increase potency, the fentanyl boom has led to cases like one involving a police officer who accidentally brushed his hand against a package following a drug bust. In order to treat the cop, four doses of Narcan had to be administered; Narcan is an antidote designed to pull users out of coma-like stupors and potential respiratory arrests.
Benzodiazepines are drugs that are utilized to treat a wide range of disorders. These are mood regulators that are sold under recognizable brand names like:
Sometimes referred to as “benzos,” these drugs are even used in rehab centers to treat individuals in recovery. It’s an especially popular choice for doctors to prescribe to individuals suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Benzos are also commonly used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. They’re even given to people who are going in for advanced dental procedures.
A 2008 study found that more than 5 percent of Americans had been prescribed benzodiazepines. Unfortunately, benzodiazepines can become addictive in their own right. They’re also known to lead to:
- Cognitive problems
- Trouble driving
This can be particularly challenging to address when prescriptions are given to aging adults who have other cognitive impairments, such as dementia.
The rise of abuse of drugs like Ritalin and Adderall has been marked by one of the least expected drug use trends in America. Students, often ones on high academic tracks, seek these drugs out for their attention-increasing capacities. They lead to a euphoric high, and that has also made them popular with club scene goers who favor them due to their capacity to extend partying time. Workers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields favor them for the same reasons that students do. They’re also frequently used in the trucking and transportation industries to stave off sleep and boredom.
Government estimates indicate that:
- 6.6 percent of American adults have used prescription stimulants.
- 2.1 percent have used them inappropriately or illegally.
- 0.2 percent had stimulant use disorders.
Stimulants are also often seen as gateway drugs. In particular, their close cousin meth is a popular alternative for people who have been cut off by their doctors. The monitoring of street-level meth quality is obviously lower than for factory products, and that leads to increased health risks.
The use of household and industrial products as ways to get high is a concern. This practice is also sometimes referred to as “huffing.”
Inhalants are products that can often be legally obtained, such as cleaning products and aerosol sprays, because their use by the general population is seen as largely safe. Misuse, however, can lead to an array of harms to the human body. Brain damage and even brain death have been reported. Due to the inhalation of volatile chemicals, users also run the risk of lethal respiratory and cardiac episodes.
According to a report from the NIH, more than 22 million Americans over the age of 12 have used inhalants of some kind in their lives. The NIH has referred to inhalants as the “forgotten epidemic.”
Arriving at numbers on this category can be tricky because this class of drugs overlaps with benzodiazepines and other prescription drugs. In fact, Xanax is sometimes utilized as a short-term tranquilizer, and Valium is frequently employed in a longer-lasting role. These drugs are also frequently sold with innocuous-sounding goals, such as “sleeping pills,” creating a false association with less dangerous products like Unisom. Recovery center admission for drugs in these classes passed 60,000 in 2008.
Trends involving sedatives are similar to ones that follow prescription painkillers. Younger generation cohorts generally don’t use them, but older Americans often start abusing them with a prescription from a doctor. Complex interactions with substances like alcohol can also increase their potential deadliness. Withdrawal symptoms are often marked by tremors, metabolic issues, hallucinations, and even seizures.
Although these addictions are very common in the United States, help is available at treatment centers for you or a loved one to recover.