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Article Summary

Issues and Trends of Drug Addiction and Abuse

Substance abuse and its related problems are among society's most pervasive health and social concerns. Each year, about 100,000 deaths in the United States are related toalcohol consumption. Illicit drug abuse and related acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) deaths account for at least another 12,000 deaths. In 1995, the economic cost of alcohol and drug abuse was $276 billion. This represents more than $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States to cover the costs of health care, motor vehicle crashes, crime, lost productivity, and other adverse outcomes of alcohol and drug abuse.

A substantial proportion of the population drinks alcohol. Forty-four percent of adults aged 18 years and older (more than 82 million persons) report having consumed 12 or more alcoholic drinks in the past year. Among these current drinkers, 46 percent report having been intoxicated at least once in the past year—nearly 4 percent report having been intoxicated weekly. More than 55 percent of current drinkers report having consumed five or more drinks on a single day at least once in the past year—more than 12 percent did so at least once a week. Nearly 20 percent of current drinkers report having consumed an average of more than two drinks per day. Nearly 10 percent of current drinkers (about 8 million persons) meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence. An additional 7 percent (more than 5.6 million persons) meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse.

Alcohol use and alcohol-related problems also are common among adolescents. Age at onset of drinking strongly predicts development of alcohol dependence over the course of the lifespan. About 40 percent of those who start drinking at age 14 years or under develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives; for those who start drinking at age 21 years or older, about 10 percent develop alcohol dependence at some point in their lives. Persons with a family history of alcoholism have a higher prevalence of lifetime dependence than those without such a history.

Excessive drinking has consequences for virtually every part of the body. The wide range of alcohol-induced disorders is due (among other factors) to differences in the amount, duration, and patterns of alcohol consumption, as well as differences in genetic vulnerability to particular alcohol-related consequences.

Light-to-moderate drinking can have beneficial effects on the heart, particularly among those at greatest risk for heart attacks, such as men over age 45 years and women after menopause. Moderate drinking generally refers to consuming one or two drinks per day. Moderate drinking, however, cannot be achieved by simply averaging the number of drinks. For example, consuming seven drinks on a single occasion will not have the same effects as consuming one drink each day of the week.

Long-term heavy drinking increases risk for high blood pressure, heart rhythm irregularities (arrhythmias), heart muscle disorders (cardiomyopathy), and stroke. Long-term heavy drinking also increases the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, especially of the esophagus, mouth, throat, and larynx. Heavy alcohol use also increases risk for cirrhosis and other liver disorders and worsens the outcome for patients with hepatitis C. Drinking also may increase the risk for developing cancer of the colon and rectum.10 Women's risk of developing breast cancer increases slightly if they drink two or more drinks per day.

Alcohol use has been linked with a substantial proportion of injuries and deaths from motor vehicle crashes, falls, fires, and drownings.11 It also is a factor in homicide, suicide, marital violence, and child abuse and has been associated with high-risk sexual behavior. Persons who drink even relatively small amounts of alcoholic beverages may contribute to alcohol-related death and injury in occupational incidents or if they drink before operating a vehicle.11 In 1998, alcohol use was associated with 38 percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities, a significantly lower percentage than in the 1980s.

Although there has been a long-term drop in overall use, many people in the United States still use illicit drugs. In 1998, there were 13.6 million current users of any illicit drug in the total household population aged 12 years and older, representing 6.2 percent of the total population. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, and 60 percent of users abuse marijuana only.18 Among persons aged 12 years and older, 35.8 percent have used an illegal drug in their lifetime. Of these, more than 90 percent used marijuana or hashish, and approximately 30 percent tried cocaine.18 Relatively rare in 1996, methamphetamine use began spreading in 1997.

Estimated rates of chronic drug use also are significant. Of the estimated 4.4 million chronic drug users in the United States in 1995, 3.6 million were chronic cocaine users (primarily crack cocaine), and 810,000 were chronic heroin users.

Drug dependence is a chronic, relapsing disorder. Addicted persons frequently engage in self-destructive and criminal behavior. Research has confirmed that treatment can help end dependence on addictive drugs and reduce the consequences of addictive drug use on society. While no single approach for substance abuse and addiction treatment exists, comprehensive and carefully tailored treatment works.

Drug use among adolescents aged 12 to 17 years doubled between 1992 and 1997, from 5.3 percent to 11.4 percent.18 Youth marijuana use has been associated with a number of dangerous behaviors. Nearly 1 million youth aged 16 to 18 years (11 percent of the total) have reported driving in the past year at least once within 2 hours of using an illegal drug (most often marijuana). Adolescents aged 12 to 17 years who smoke marijuana were more than twice as likely to cut class, steal, attack persons, and destroy property than those who did not smoke marijuana. Drug and alcohol use by youth also is associated with other forms of unhealthy and unproductive behavior, including delinquency and high-risk sexual activity.

Illegal use of drugs, such as heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine, is associated with other serious consequences, including injury, illness, disability, and death as well as crime, domestic violence, and lost workplace productivity. Drug users and persons with whom they have sexual contact run high risks of contracting gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The relationship between injection drug use and HIV/AIDS transmission is well known. Injection drug use also is associated with hepatitis B and C infections. The use of cocaine, nitrates, and other substances can produce cardiac irregularities and heart failure, convulsions, and seizures. Cocaine use temporarily narrows blood vessels in the brain, contributing to the risk of strokes (bleeding within the brain) and cognitive and memory deficits. Long-term consequences, such as chronic depression, sexual dysfunction, and psychosis, may result from drug use.

Substance abuse, including tobacco use and nicotine dependence, is associated with a variety of other serious health and social problems. An analysis of the epidemiologic evidence reveals that 72 conditions requiring hospitalization are wholly or partially attributable to substance abuse.

Substance abuse contributes to cancers that, until recently, were thought to be unrelated. Advances in research techniques since the 1980s, including advanced brain imaging and the study of the effects of alcohol and drug abuse on individual cells, have helped to document the alteration of healthy systems by all forms of substance abuse, including marijuana use. Researchers have identified lasting brain and nervous system damage from drugs, including changes in nerve cell structure associated with alcohol and drug dependence. Other research has focused on the long-term effects of alcohol and drug abuse on the immune system as well as the effects of prenatal alcohol and drug exposure on the behavior and development of children.

Research confirms that a substantial number of frequent users of cocaine, heroin, and illicit drugs other than marijuana have co-occurring chronic mental health disorders. Some of these persons can be identified by their behavior problems at the time of their entry into elementary school. Such youth tend to use substances at a young age and exhibit sensation-seeking (or "novelty-seeking") behaviors. These youth benefit from more intensive preventive interventions, including family therapy and parent training programs.,

The stigma attached to substance abuse increases the severity of the problem. The hiding of substance abuse, for example, can prevent persons from seeking and continuing treatment and from having a productive attitude toward treatment. Compounding the problem is the gap between the number of available treatment slots and the number of persons seeking treatment for illicit drug use or problem alcohol use.

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