Generally when we hear the terms “drug” or “drug addict” we assume the reference is geared towards illegal street drugs. There seems to be a silent acceptance of the addictive qualities and negative impacts that legal drugs have on society. When/if the negative impacts they have are addressed, an overt finger is pointed at the person who found themselves addicted to the substance that was either prescribed by a professional or advertised repeatedly through media outlets as a fun, enjoyable way to spend downtime. There are warning labels but for the most part these drugs are depicted as a fairly safe means to cure an ailment or a recipe for a good time.
How factual are the portrayals of these legal drugs? The legal drugs that I am referring to are prescription drugs, like painkillers and muscle relaxers. Other legal drugs are cigarettes/tobacco products and of course alcohol. The fact that these drugs are treated so differently from illegal street drugs would have many believe that the effects both on the body and mind are minimal. Here are the facts:
- Alcoholism is the most common addiction among Americans and goes untreated most often because of the legality of the substance. More people are treated for alcohol than any other substance and it has been estimated that 95% of people who should be treated for alcoholism do not think that they have a problem.
- Tobacco products have the highest rate of dependence. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people but the little tobacco filled items that can be bought at any corner store and are smoked in most public spaces, legally, are even more addictive than hard drugs like heroine.
- Tobacco products are the cause of more deaths each year than every other legal and illegal drug combined every year.
- Painkiller overdoses are extremely high. In fact, they are more common than cocaine and heroin overdoses combined.
- The leading cause of cancer and death from cancer is tobacco.
- These legal drugs are extraordinarily expensive to our nation. Tobacco costs the medical industry 130 billion annually and 295 billion overall including costs related to crime, lost work productivity and the medical costs combined.
- The costs of alcohol to the medical industry are 25 billion and the overall costs are 224 billion for the nation.
- Both tobacco and alcohol individually cost the nation more than all illicit drugs combined annually.
The physical effects of legal drugs are a factor that is not addressed widely either. Tobacco specifically has a wide range of negative impacts on the user’s outward appearance. These effects range from everything from creating bad breath and tooth discoloration to red swollen gums and actual tooth loss making it impossible to keep a good smile.
In the end, addiction is addiction and drugs — both legal or illicit — are hurting our communities and our nation. Beginning to treat what are seen as legal drugs with the same warning from a young age as the illegal ones is a start. Education and awareness are key, including warning labels with the facts and actual numbers of casualties.
For prescription drugs when advertised through media and television outlets there is still some warning. Granted it may be in the last 10-15 seconds of the commercial and spoken so quickly that any normal person can only hear every third word, but there is still some semblance of danger. With alcohol there is no such thing. There is the mantra “drink responsibly” but there is no real understanding of what that means and the consequences if the drug is not handled “responsibly.” This warning is in no way correlative of the damage that it could cause.
The numbers stated above are staggering and the way these drugs are portrayed has created a culture of acceptable addictions. Acknowledging that a change needs to be made and sharing the depth of the problem with larger society should not only be the distributor’s duty, but the right of all of the consumers. At this point prohibition will only make the problem worse. Education, like with most things is the key to a smarter, healthier, well-adjusted society.