clock menu more-arrow no yes

What drug are Americans most worried about? Hint: it's totally legal.

What drug poses the biggest problem in your community? When Americans are asked, the biggest answer isn't cocaine, heroin, marijuana, or opioid painkillers. Instead, Americans point to a totally legal substance: alcohol.

Those findings come from a new survey by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which asked more than 1,000 US adults to identify how big of a problem certain drugs are in their communities. The results point to alcohol as the biggest cause for concern:

To some degree, this isn't too surprising. Alcohol, after all, is legal and arguably the most accessible of all the drugs for adults. The runner-up, opioid painkillers, also suggests a link to accessibility, since it's the widespread access and proliferation of these painkillers that caused the modern opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic.

Still, alcohol is a big problem in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths each year. It's also linked to other problems, including domestic abuse, sexual assault in college campuses, 40 percent of violent crimes in the US, and more than 4.6 million emergency room visits in 2010.

Alcohol, in fact, is deadlier than all illicit substances. Tobacco, which kills an estimated 480,000 people each year, is the deadliest drug in the US. But alcohol is second, followed by opioid painkillers, then heroin, cocaine, and other illegal drugs.

That doesn't mean alcohol should be treated in the same way as illicit drugs. Experts have suggested a few ways the drug could be curtailed without prohibition, including higher alcohol taxes and taking away some people's right to drink.

But much of US anti-drug policy tends to focus on the illegal drugs through the war on drugs. Alcohol's death toll and Americans' views suggest that may need to change.