Get help today 888-744-0069 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

America’s Drug Awareness

For the first time in a decade, the CDC reported that death rates in the United States have increased. While news outlets trumpet the increased violence rampant in many areas of the country, the public is largely unaware of a silent contributor – drug overdoses.

In a single year, nearly 47,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. – an average of 127 deaths every single day. You may not read or hear much about drug deaths, but they’re occurring at an alarming and ever-increasing rate. In fact, since the turn of the millennium, drug overdose rates have jumped 137 percent – and overdose rates involving heroin and opioid pain relievers have skyrocketed 200 percent.

To explore just how knowledgeable Americans are about drug-related issues facing the country today, we surveyed 2,000 people in the U.S. about their perceptions – and compared these with the realities. We tackled sobering issues, including the dangers of different drug types, the ease of obtaining illicit substances, the challenges of rehabilitation, and even people’s personal experiences with substance abuse. How much do Americans really know about drugs? Keep reading to gee the whole story.

Personal Experience With Drugs

We first wanted to get an idea of our survey respondents’ personal connections to substance addiction, so we asked respondents to share any first-hand experiences. Of the 2,000 people involved in the survey, half knew someone who struggled with a substance abuse issue, while 44 percent said they didn’t know anyone dealing with substance abuse.

According to the SAMHSA 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 27 million Americans aged 12 and over (or 1 in 10 people) admit to having used illicit drugs in the past month. Among those users, 7.1 million had an illicit drug use disorder – which represents 2.7 percent of people 12 and older.

Although it may seem surprising that 44 percent of our respondents say they do not know anyone with a substance use problem, this percentage may simply point to the number of people who struggle with substance abuse in silence. Compounding the issue, people suffering from addiction may give up hobbies and activities, become more secretive, and have relationship problems.

Among our respondents, more than one-third knew someone who had died from a drug overdose. This high prevalence of personal connection underscores how serious the drug epidemic has become. According to the CDC, in 2014, 47,000 people died from drug overdoses – and more than 28,000 people died from opioid overdoses (prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin).

Six percent of respondents said they themselves had a substance abuse problem. Given that 2.7 percent of Americans report an illicit drug use disorder, this represents a rate much higher than expected.

Even for close family members and friends, broaching the subject of a loved one’s substance abuse can be extremely challenging. When survey participants were asked whether a friend or family member had approached them to discuss their drug use, nearly 1 in 5 respondents said yes. Just under 6 in 10 said no, while 23 percent said the question did not apply to them.

We then asked our survey participants whether they had ever brought up concerns about other people’s substance abuse habits. More than half said they had, while just under 4 in 10 said they hadn’t. (Another 7 percent said the question did not apply.)

It isn’t easy to discuss drug abuse with a loved one – however, mustering the courage to gently confront someone about an addiction can save his or her life. Some may wonder why people can’t just quit on their own – but drugs have a powerful hold.

In fact, substance abuse affects the part of the brain linked with self-control, so even a person who wants to quit can encounter great difficulty. Broaching the subject, voicing encouragement, and offering to help a friend find the right treatment center is a true act of love. If you want advice on how to bring up the subject with a loved one, visit or call .

Comparing Deaths: Drugs, Car Crashes, and Guns

Which threat do you think kills more people: car crashes, shootings, or drugs? More than half of our survey participants pegged motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death among the three. Another 41 percent believed drug overdoses killed the most people, while 4 percent said firearm incidents were the deadliest.

The reality is stark: In a single year, drug overdoses caused 46,471 deaths, compared with 35,369 car accident fatalities and 33,636 firearm-related deaths. Drugs are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the country, causing 27 percent more fatalities than car crashes and 32 percent more deaths than firearms – but 6 in 10 Americans are unaware of that fact.

Various factors contribute to this lack of knowledge. Although drug-related deaths of celebrities can spur an uptick in news coverage and conversation, the truth is that the high prevalence of drug deaths simply isn’t on many Americans’ radars. However, drug addiction and death transcend background, age, race, and socioeconomic status.

Additionally, people personally affected by drug addiction or overdoses may sometimes have difficulty talking about it. Their grieving is complicated, as there can be a stigma surrounding drug overdoses that does not exist when people lose a loved one to an illness. For many people, it’s second nature to bring a warm, comforting meal to a family that has experienced a birth, serious illness, or death. However, a common lament for many grieving families is that no one delivers casseroles – or emotional support – after a drug-related death.

Ease of Entering Rehab

Say someone is struggling with drug abuse. How easy is it for a person to seek a treatment program that will lead down the path to recovery? According to nearly 3 in 10 of our survey participants, seeking help was perceived as being at least somewhat easy. Almost 4 in 10 said getting treatment is somewhat difficult, and nearly 2 in 10 rated it quite difficult. (Around 15 percent had a neutral opinion.)

There are more than 14,500 drug treatment facilities in the U.S. However, based on statistics, it appears that getting drug abuse treatment can be quite difficult. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2014 around 22.5 million people required assistance for a substance abuse issue. Yet only 2.6 million (not even 12 percent of people in need) received treatment for substance abuse at any time in the previous year.

According to SAMHSA, people who needed but didn’t receive treatment reported numerous barriers: 41 percent said they weren’t ready to stop using, and 31 percent said they had no health coverage and couldn’t afford the expense. Another 12 percent worried that seeking treatment would negatively affect their job, and 11 percent thought it could cause neighbors or community members to have a negative opinion. Finally, 10 percent of people reported not knowing where to go for treatment, and about 8 percent said no program was available.

Treatment for substance abuse focuses on multiple goals: Aside from simply halting a person’s drug abuse, programs empower participants to return to life within their families, workplaces, and communities, and move forward in a positive way. Addiction can be successfully managed just as other chronic diseases can, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

While individual rates of success can vary, research shows that people who enter and stay in treatment tend to stop using drugs and improve many aspects of their lives. Although some programs can be costly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has implemented rules that increase coverage for substance abuse disorders; this feature enables more people to seek the necessary treatment.

The Ease of Procuring Drugs

Discussing drugs and actually obtaining them are two very different issues. We asked respondents to rank how difficult they believe it is to get various types of substances. The majority of respondents (around 8 in 10) believed marijuana is easy or somewhat easy to obtain – and indeed, marijuana is currently legal in some form in 25 states as well as Washington, D.C. Between 2007 and 2013, marijuana use among people age 12 and older increased, rising from 14.5 million users (5.8 percent of Americans) to 19.8 million (7.5 percent of Americans).

Additionally, more than half of respondents believed that opioids (like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Ultram) and tranquilizers (like Valium, Klonopin, and Xanax) are easy or somewhat easy to obtain. This perception of easy availability mirrors the skyrocketing rate of prescription drug deaths. According to the DEA, since 2002 there have been more prescription drug deaths than deaths from cocaine and heroin deaths combined.

Between 2001 and 2014, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses more than tripled. (The epidemic is actually a factor in driving up the U.S. death rate as a whole.) Deaths from overdoses of tranquilizers (also known as benzodiazepines) increased nearly five-fold during the same time period. A recent study revealed that in about one-third of tranquilizer overdose deaths, opioid use was also involved.

Overall, based on the percentage of survey participants who chose each option, PCP, LSD, heroin, crack cocaine, and MDMA are thought to be among the most difficult to obtain. Indeed, according to the 2015 Drug Threat Assessment released by the DEA, prescription drug use rates are higher than those of cocaine, meth, heroin, MDMA, and PCP combined. The report notes that the U.S. markets for MDMA and PCP are relatively small. As for cocaine, the report shows that that the country has seen a decrease in availability – however, fatality rates for cocaine remain high in some areas. Availability of heroin remains high, and rates of both usage and overdose deaths have increased.

The Dangers of Prescription Meds and Illegal Drugs

One might expect that most people believe illicit drugs are deadlier than prescription medications. For instance, Psychology Today writes that “Contrary to popular mythology, prescription drugs are more lethal than illegal or street drugs.” notes that “People often think that prescription and OTC drugs are safer than illicit drugs.” The Drug Free Action Alliance states that “Teens are abusing prescription drugs because many believe the myth that these drugs provide a ‘safe’ high … ”

However, when asked which type of drugs cause the most deaths, our survey participants’ opinions were clear: A full three-quarters of respondents believe prescription medication is the biggest killer, while just under a quarter say illicit drugs are the deadliest. Perhaps people are becoming more aware of the dangers due to increased media coverage and efforts to educate the public, patients, and medical practitioners.

The majority of our respondents are correct. According to the CDC, prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin fuel the drug overdose epidemic that’s facing the country. In 2014, a total of 25,760 people died from prescription drug overdose. Far fewer – 17,465 total – died from overdoses involving illicit drugs. However, among those killed by illegal substances, heroin was involved in more than half of the cases.

One contributing factor is the relative ease of procuring prescription medication. According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, among 12th-graders who obtain prescription narcotics, more than half receive them for free from friends or relatives. Thirty-five percent have their own prescription, 32 percent purchase them from a friend or relative, and fewer than 20 percent steal them from a friend or relative.

Heroin, too, has become increasingly available, and it is much more affordable than prescription drugs. These factors, coupled with the drug’s high purity, have sparked greater usage and higher death rates.

Knowledge Is Power

Our survey paints a picture of how familiar Americans are with certain aspects of drug abuse – and how unfamiliar they are with others. For instance, although most Americans incorrectly believed that auto accidents kill more people than drugs, the majority were aware that prescription drugs kill more people than illicit substances. Many Americans have personal experience with substance abuse. More than one-third know someone who has died from an overdose, and more than half have voiced concern about a loved one’s drug use.

Drugs are currently the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S. – and the issue has worsened in recent years. Prescription drugs and heroin are currently the top concerns. To reduce prescription drug overdose deaths, the CDC recommends the following action steps:

  • Provide health professionals with education to make better decisions about prescribing medications.
  • Increase access to treatment for people who use drugs.
  • Expand the availability and use of naloxone (the life-saving drug that counters an opioid overdose) must be expanded as well.
  • Ensure that local public health agencies, medical examiners, and law enforcement ramp up the detection and response to spates of overdoses.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance addiction, it’s time to get help now – today. No drug is worth your health, your life, or the lives of your loved ones. Visit or call today to speak with someone who can help you get started on the path to recovery.


We surveyed 2,000 people to find out what they knew about substance abuse in the U.S. We then presented our survey results alongside data provided by the CDC and DEA to show how people’s perceptions compared to the facts of substance abuse.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.