One of the most common questions my friends and family ask me about addiction is “What is the most dangerous drug?” There are certainly many metrics for quantifying the risks of drugs of abuse including commonly known measures such as morbidity and mortality. To me the mortality rate, or lethality of a substance, is a pretty solid marker for danger.
While I often hear heroin or methamphetamine suggested, an article I recently came across suggests that some of the most dangerous drugs are ones you are probably very familiar with and likely have in your home. However, they are not likely the drugs you might have guessed are the most dangerous...
The article “The 3 deadliest drugs in America are all totally legal” was recently published online at Vox.com.
It utilized data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and reported “tobacco, alcohol, and opioid-based prescription painkillers were responsible for more direct deaths in one year than any other drug”.
Here are some of the specifics from this article:
|The medical profession eventually got this one right... as more than 1/2 of smokers end up dying from a smoking related illness. |
- Tobacco is the most deadly drug in the U.S. “More Americans die from tobacco-caused health problems like lung cancer and heart disease than from reported drug overdoses, traffic accidents, and homicides combined”.
- “Cigarette smoking is linked to one in five deaths in the US each year… Nearly 42,000 of the total 480,000 deaths (caused by smoking each year) are [due to] secondhand smoke”.
|Alcohol negatively effects every organ system in the body. photo credit: http://www.alcoholservices-ateam.org.uk/effects_of_alcohol.html|
- Alcohol-induced health problems, such as liver disease, led to more than 29,000 deaths in 2013. When including other causes of death like drunk driving and homicides, the toll rises to 88,000 per year.
- Alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
3. Prescription Painkillers
|The overdoses that make the news are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to opioid abuse. |
photo credit: http://www.delrayrecoverycenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/graph.png
- Prescription painkillers are linked to thousands of deaths each year.
- Recent crackdowns [and stricter prescribing] have pushed some [prescription pain medication users] to the more potent and dangerous heroin [when they cannot afford or obtain the prescriptions they have been previously prescribed]”.
While Cigarettes, Alcohol and Prescription Pain medications are all addictive and dangerous, they are all currently legal. Their heightened lethality and the problems associated with them could simply be a result of the increased access that their legality affords. You can buy cigarettes or alcohol at almost any corner in the U.S. and I would venture to say that most households in the U.S. have at least one bottle of pain medication in their medicine cabinet.
This article also discussed a separate article which I have seen before. I found this second article eyeopening, included it in a substance abuse lecture I gave to medical students, and previously discussed it here. The article was published in the Lancet and provides a nice graph which clearly ranks and differentiates the harm of different drugs both to users and the harm caused to others. It supports the premise that alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs. However, it ranks tobacco after several other substances including heroin and stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine. This data also provides a little perspective as to the harm of marijuana, which is currently a topic of much debate in the media. (see below)
|Figure: Drugs ordered by their overall harm scores, showing the separate contributions to the overall scores of harms to users and harm to others |
Would heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD and other illegal substances be more lethal if they were legalized and became more accessible? I plan take a deep look into this research. I’m also interested to know if countries with more open access to these substances have higher or lower morbidity and mortality rates associated with their use as compared to our rates in the U.S. Do countries that have programs like needle sharing, more access to rehabilitation or residential recovery have less deaths and crime associated with drug use? I think these are questions worth asking.
|A look at how U.S. consumption and production of Amphetamines (ATS), cocaine and opioids compares to our other areas around the world. Credit: http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2015/02/drug-infographic.png|
In the meantime, consider these facts the next time someone asks “What is the most deadly drug in America?”. If you think of other important questions to ask regarding drug use, legalization, rehabilitation/addiction treatments and how other counties are doing things differently, please leave a comment below.