Alcoholism and Drug Dependence – America’s Number One Health Problem


Alcoholism and Drug Dependence ? America's #1 Problem The cost and consequences of alcoholism and drug dependence place an enormous burden on American society. As the nation’s number one health problem, addiction strains the health care system, the economy, harms family life, and threatens public safety.

Substance abuse crosses all societal boundaries, affects both genders, every ethnic group, and people in every tax bracket. Scientific documentation defines alcoholism and drug dependence as a disease that has roots in both genetic susceptibility and personal behavior.

Scope of the Problem

  • Substance abuse causes more deaths and disabilities each year in the U.S. than from any other cause.1
  • About 18 million Americans have alcohol problems; about 5–6 million Americans have other drug problems.2
  • More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking.3
  • More than nine million children live with a parent dependent on alcohol and/or illicit drugs.3

The Consequences

  • One-quarter of all emergency room admissions, one-third of all suicides, and more than half of all homicides and incidents of domestic violence are alcohol-related.4
  • Heavy drinking contributes to illness in each of the top three causes of death: heart disease, cancer and stroke.3
  • Almost half of all traffic fatalities are alcohol-related.5
  • Between 48% and 64% of people who die in fires have blood alcohol levels indicating intoxication.1
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading known cause of mental retardation.6

The Costs

  • Alcohol and drug abuse costs the American economy an estimated $276 billion per year in lost productivity, health care expenditures, crime, motor vehicle crashes, and other conditions.7
  • Untreated addiction is more expensive than heart disease, diabetes, and cancer combined.7
  • Every American adult pays nearly $1,000 per year for the damages of addiction.8

What Can Be Done ?

Like other diseases, addiction can be overcome with proper treatment, prevention, and more research. By increasing access to care, the costly toll on society and the burden it places on families can be reduced. Research shows conclusively that successful prevention and treatment leads to reductions in traffic fatalities, crime, unwanted pregnancy, child abuse, HIV, cancer, and heart disease. Treatment reduces drug use, improves health, improves job performance, reduces involvement with the criminal justice system, reduces family dysfunction, and improves quality of life.

Testing has documented the dramatic decreases in occupational problems, including the following reductions after treatment:
• absenteeism decreased by 89%
• tardiness decreased by 92%
• problems with supervisors decreased by 56%
• mistakes in work decreased by 70%
• incomplete work decreased by 81%9

Another study found significant decreased health care costs from before to after treatment in:
• hospitalizations for physical health problems (-36%)
• drug overdose hospitalizations (-58%)
• mental health hospitalizations (-44%)
• number of emergency room visits (-36%)
• total number of hospital days (-25%)10

Americans increasingly recognize that alcoholism and drug dependence is a disease with consequences that affect both physical and behavioral health. Diagnostic and treatment services have changed in recent years and modern treatment, when adequately provided, enables a great many people to recover and rebuild productive lives.

It is important that the public be aware of evidence generated by scientific inquiry, clinical evaluation, and clinical experience. The evidence demonstrates that treatment for alcohol and other drug abuse works. Treatment not only saves lives, it also saves dollars that would otherwise be spent in other areas of medical care and social services. For every dollar spent on addiction treatment, seven dollars is saved in reduced health care costs.10

Alcoholism and drug dependence are treatable and millions of people have achieved recovery.


1 “Substance Abuse: The Nation’s Number One Health Problem,” Institute for Health Policy, Brandeis University, 1993.

2 “Substance Abuse: The Nation’s Number One Health Problem,” Institute for Health Policy, Brandeis University, 2001.

3 Position Paper on Drug Policy, Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy, Brown University Center for Alcohol & Addiction Studies, 2000.

4 “Sobering Facts on the Dangers of Alcohol,” NY Newsday, April 24, 2002.

5 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Annual Report, 1992.

6 E. Abel, “Incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & Economic Impact of FAS-Related Anomalies,” Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 1987.

7 “Substance Abuse: The Nation’s Number One Health Problem,” Institute for Health Policy, Brandeis University, 2001.

8 The National Drug Control Strategy, The White House, 1997.

9 Ohio Dept. of Alcohol & Drug Addiction Services, New Standards, Inc., St. Paul, MN, 1994.

10 Gerstein, et al, “Evaluating Recovery Services: the California Drug & Alcohol Assessment,” Sacramento, 1994.