For all the concern about illegal drug abuse, the two most commonly used mind-altering substances --alcohol and tobacco -- take a far greater toll on the health and welfare of Americans. Both substances can be as addictive as many banned drugs, and their consumption poses grave threats to users and non-users alike.
Smoking has long been known to cause cancers of the lung, esophagus and mouth, as well as emphysema, bronchitis and heart disease. More than 430,000 Americans die each year of smoking-related diseases. More recent research has shown that non-smokers exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke are at a higher risk of contracting these diseases than those who live in a smoke-free environment.
Regulation of tobacco sales has tightened as a result of recent court verdicts forcing tobacco manufacturers to pay damages to victims of smoking-related diseases and reimburse states for the costs of treating them. The most recent judgment came on July 14, when a Florida jury awarded $145 billion to sick Florida smokers.
Smoking-related illnesses kill more than 430,000 Americans each year, and recent research has shown that non-smokers exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke are also at risk. (AP Photo/Heather Dryer)
The court verdicts, combined with a 40-year-old public-health campaign warning smokers of the health risks associated with smoking, have reduced tobacco consumption from a peak of 43 percent of the adult population in 1966 to about 25 percent today.
Excessive alcohol consumption also is associated with health risks, especially liver disease. But because of its intoxicating effects, alcoholics aren't the only ones at risk from alcohol abuse. Led by drunken-driving traffic accidents, alcohol-related deaths outnumber deaths related to illicit drugs by four to one.
“Alcohol is a mildly addictive drug that most of us don't have problems with, but since it's widely available, cheap and socially approved, it is without question the single biggest drug-abuse problem in the country,” says U.S. “drug czar” Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Around 6 percent of the population, or about 14 million people, have used [illegal] drugs in the past month, and around 5 million of those are chronic addicts. Illegal drugs probably kill around 52,000 people a year and cost us $110 billion in damages. But there are as many as 16 million Americans who are chronically abusing alcohol, and alcohol abuse probably kills 100,000 people a year and costs $150 billion in damages.”
Congress included alcohol among the list of banned drugs in 1919 when it passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the production, sale and consumption of alcohol. But because of alcohol's widespread use, the experiment failed, and lawmakers overturned Prohibition in 1933.
Although anyone 21 or older can easily buy alcohol, and tobacco is available to anyone 18 or older, McCaffrey says both substances are the focus of his education campaign to discourage drug use among young people. “Goal No. 1 of our drug-control strategy is to motivate America's youngsters to reject the use of illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco products,” he says.
The drug czar is barred from using appropriated funds to target legal substances, but he does use matching funds to pay for public-service announcements warning young people about the dangers of alcohol abuse. “In my judgment, alcohol abuse probably ought to be added to the National Drug Control Policy director's portfolio,” McCaffrey says. Mean-while, he adds, “We've got the biggest youth anti-alcohol campaign in history going on using matching funds.”
McCaffrey is hopeful that alcohol and tobacco use will fall as a result of the war on illegal drugs. “If you solve the drug problem, you'll also reduce adolescent crime, adolescent pregnancy and adolescent alcohol abuse,” he says. “They're all wrapped up in the same attitudinal shifts.”