The State of Addiction in the U.S.

May 13, 2021
Medically reviewed by Dr. Maroof Ahmed, MD on 
Aug 23, 2021

Substance abuse and addiction continues to take a toll on workplaces across the U.S., with nearly 11 million workers across America struggling with a substance use disorder.  The misuse of and addiction to mind-and behavior-altering substances has significantly impacted the lives of individuals, families and communities nationwide. The most recent figures paint an unsettling picture:

• In 2018, 53 million Americans (19.4 percent) used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs. Among the top five misused drugs were prescription stimulants, marijuana, methamphetamines, opioids, and prescription pain medications.

• In addition, 20.3 million people had a substance use disorder including: 

      • 14.8 million with alcohol use disorders

      • 8.1 million with illegal drug use disorders

      • 2 million with opioid use disorders (including prescription pain relievers and/or heroin use)

Financially, the costs of addiction are substantial. The White House Council of Economic Advisors estimated that the opioid crisis alone cost the U.S. economy $696 billion in 2018.

A Crisis within a Crisis

Compounding the country’s addiction crisis has been another unprecedented crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. In the first few months of the pandemic, alcohol sales rose 27 percent. With on-premise dining shut down during this time, alcohol sales shifted from restaurants and bars to in-home. Compared to this time a year ago, during the week that ended May 9, 2020, brick-and-mortar alcohol sales rose 41 percent. 

In addition, a study of American adults, showed psychological distress related to the pandemic was strongly associated with alcohol use quantity and frequency, as well as heavy drinking. Alcohol is not the only substance that experienced a growth in usage. National Laboratory Services’ Millennium Health reported a 32 percent increase for non-prescription fentanyl, a 20 percent increase for methamphetamines, and a 10 percent increase for cocaine from mid-March to May 2020. The pandemic has been a time of extreme stress for many, but it has had a particularly egregious impact on individuals already vulnerable to substance misuse. The stress felt across the U.S. as a result of social isolation, job loss and income insecurity has contributed to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Coupled with high levels of fear and uncertainty, new mental health challenges have arisen as well as the exacerbation of existing ones. Unfortunately, a growing mental health problem translates into additional substance use disorders, and vice versa.

Ignoring the problem can create ripple effects that result in serious long-term economic and employee wellness issues, regardless of a company’s size. However, guiding employees toward treatment is a proactive, compassionate and ultimately, cost-effective course of action that instills in them the sense that they are a valued part of the organization. And, an employee who believes their job is secure may be more inclined to seek treatment and get their life back on track.


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