The Facts and Figures on Substance Abuse in the United States

Substance abuse is characterized by the consistent use of abusive substances that cause mind-altering and detrimental effects on the user's health and mental stability. Substance abusers often suffer from co-occurring disorders, which usually occur as a result of their abuse.

Substance use can lead to devastating consequences such as broken relationships, financial ruin, severe health complications and even death. Hence, if you or your loved one is battling a substance abuse problem, you should seriously consider getting help as early as possible.

This article covers some important facts and statistics on substance abuse. I believe the following information will motivate you to seek help.


Substance abuse is a significant problem throughout the world. In the United States, it affects an estimated 23.5 million people every year. Of these, only an estimated 11.2% ever receives treatment in health care facilities. Shockingly, this means that the rest of the abusers just live with their addiction.

Substance abuse is also a serious threat to the social and economic fabric of nations, communities, and families. The numbers are actually staggering. According to World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide an estimated 2 billion people abuse alcohol, roughly 185 million people are abusing drugs, and about 1.3 billion are smokers. In 2000, WHO estimates that nearly 12.4% of deaths across the globe were a direct result of alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse.

USA. Past month illicit drug use. Age 12 or older, by race or ethnicity
Description: Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The above graph showing past month illicit drug use among persons aged 12 or older.

The substances in question range from prescription drugs to household cleaners and everything in between. Of those, alcohol addiction is the most common, making up to 41.4% of treatment facility admissions. Heroin and opiates come in second with roughly 20% of admissions, and marijuana accounts for about 17% of admissions.

In the United States, the most commonly abused drugs are marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, anabolic steroids, and ecstasy. However, prescription drug abuse is an equally large threat, though less well-documented. The misuse of prescription drugs, including sleeping pills, pain killers, and stimulants, has more severe consequences than the abuse of hard drugs. While prescription drug abuse is responsible for 45% of all deaths in relation to drugs, hard drugs account for 39% of all deaths.

Although the latter is more dangerous in terms of detrimental effect on the body, more people overdose or mix substances with prescription drugs. You can check the National Survey of Drug Use and Health by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for more information.

Harm Caused By DrugsTable
Both legal and illegal drugs can do much harm. Legal drugs are not necessarily safer than illicit. They also can cause drug dependency, which may eventually lead to addiction. Interestingly, a 2010 study published in the Journal Lancet found that despite being legal more often than the illicit drugs, alcohol was analyzed the most dangerous by far. The above illustration is the maximum possible harm ratings of certain drugs measured by the drug-harm experts in the study.

What are the Causes of Substance Abuse?

Drug Brain Activity

There are many causes of substance abuse including peer pressure, social and mental problems, stress, psychiatric issues, unemployment, and many more. However, because of hypersensitivity to particular compounds, some people are more easily addicted to substances than others.

Substance abuse causes an uncontrollable desire for more of that substance, which often leads to neglecting family, friends, job, and other duties. Physiologically, it makes the brain to release a large amount of a chemical known as dopamine, a neurotransmitter of the brain that affects the 'reward circuit' to generate a pleasure sensation.

Overtime, the brain adapts to the mechanism of misused substances, releasing less amounts of dopamine, and causing the user to try more of the substance, which results in further addiction. For more information, read my post The Science of Addiction: How Drugs Affect the Brain.


The diagnosis of substance abuse follows a set of sequential steps. Various screening tests help identify people who are abusing substances. These tests usually involve answering a set of questions related to the patient’s background, level of addiction, substance use, and psychological problems. However, because substance abusers often deny their use, these tests are professionally designed to provoke answers related to the problems associated with their substance use. The result of a screening test is generally confirmed by taking approval from a qualified professional, preferably a clinical psychiatrist or general physician.

For employers who want to screen employees for substance abuse, multi-panel drug test cups can be a solution to get an accurate and quick reading. These test cups not only make things simple but also provide a seamless screening process. They come up with a wide range of features: anywhere from 3 to 12 panels and everywhere in between. In addition, these cups are able to read the presence of up to 14 different drugs. All it takes is just one cup to determine the level of substance abuse.

Treatment for Substance Abuse

Treating the substance addiction is always possible if the addicted person agrees to get proper treatment. Treatment options usually vary depending on the level of addiction, the substance used, and the person's age. The majority of treatment centers focus on a 12-step process of guilt admission, religious beliefs, and group therapy.

However, because solving the underlying mental and psychological issues is more important to ensure unsolicited relapse, learning how to handle various triggers such as stress, anxiety, and friends' temptations is a critical aspect of substance abuse treatment. Hence, behavioral therapy that treats the actual issue is growing in popularity.

Many people in the early stages of addiction go through outpatient rehabilitation where they continue with their jobs and their lives while seeking help. The help groups are typically either a clinic or one of the substance anonymous groups, or a combination of the two.

Inpatient drug rehab is an option for those grew physical dependence to substance. Residential stays in hospitals or clinics prevent these people from accessing the substances they are addicted to. These programs typically include long-term treatment options with a minimum stay of 30-90 days, and then outpatient care to ensure that returning home doesn't cause a relapse.

Most traditional substance abuse treatment is characterized by periods of relapse before the patient is truly free of their addiction. This is mainly caused by familiar triggers, temptations from 'friends', and stress, all of which can be avoided by learning how to handle these triggers through behavioral therapy.


Anyone looking to get into a drug treatment program should consult with their doctor to determine the best options and treatment possibilities for their needs. Though there are many different types of rehabilitation, it is always a good idea to get a professional opinion first, because some treatment methods are better than conventional methods to treat certain types of addiction.

Medical Reference

Nutt DJ, King LA, Phillips LD, & Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (2010). Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. Lancet, 376 (9752), 1558-65 PMID: 21036393

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Welcome to Medical-Reference. My name is Imtiaz Ibne Alam. I'm a pharmacist and a freelance medical writer with 7+ years of experience in the health care industry.

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