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Are Addiction Levels on the Rise? Depends on the Substance

Addiction to drugs and alcohol continues to be a serious problem in society, one that is discussed and debated in classrooms and political arenas across the country. But is the use (and abuse) of dangerous substances really on the rise? Data suggests that it depends on the substance in question.

Despite panicked efforts to convince the public that the entire country is descending into a drug-induced stupor, the fact is that use of most illegal drugs has actually been declining over the last few years. Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that usage of cocaine in particular has been declining in recent years. Alcohol and tobacco abuse have also been on the decline, especially among teens.

However, other forms of substance abuse have been on the rise, most notably the misuse of prescription pain medications and heroin. These two substances (which are in many ways similar) have seen increasing numbers of individuals misusing the drugs, as well as an increase in overdose deaths, over the past several years.

An estimated 15 million Americans abuse prescription drugs—more than the users of cocaine, heroin, inhalants and hallucinogens combined. This high number of abusers no doubt also contributes to the United States’ high number of prescription drug overdose deaths—22,767 in 2013 alone. That number accounts for over half of all overdose-related deaths.

The National Institute on Health (NIH) reports that prescription drug overdose deaths have seen a “2.5-fold increase” since 2001, but that growth pales in comparison to the rise of heroin. NIH data shows a “five-fold increase in the total number of deaths” since 2001, an increase that has contributed to other issues as well.

For example, a Forbes piece in 2014 reported that the state of Vermont had experienced a 770 percent increase in heroin abuse levels since 2000, fueled in part by abusers of painkillers turning to the drug as a cheaper and more easily accessible source for a high.

Demographic information noted by Forbes also dissipates the stereotypical image of an impoverished heroin addict living on the streets, struggling to get by—heroin abuse seems to be increasing the most among the nation’s more affluent communities.

So while the decrease in levels of cocaine, tobacco and alcohol abuse is something to be celebrated, it is clear that there is much work still to be done in reversing the current trends of heroin and prescription drug abuse. Without proper education of the dangers of heroin and prescription drug abuse, these numbers could continue to rise, leading to more tragedies for those trapped in the cycle of addiction.