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Portrait of Addiction

Portrait of Addiction

It’s difficult not to have a preconceived notion of what kinds of people struggle with drug abuse given their portrayal in the media, the arts, and in political messages. But what do the data say? Every year, the U.S. federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration interviews over 55,000 people chosen to be a representative sample of all Americans. It asks hundreds of questions in order to create an accurate portrayal of the role of substances of abuse, from alcohol to marijuana to “hard drugs,” in society.

A comparison between demographic factors of addicts and non-addicts shows a mix of predictable and possibly surprising results, which are listed below. The factors with the most difference between addicts and non-addicts are at the top, and those with the least are at the bottom. The first five results show, compared to the general population, more addicts are young, male, below the poverty threshold, in somewhat poorer physical health, and in much poorer mental health. A mathematical test showed that mental health is more than 1,000 times different between these two populations than would be required to call this result statistically significant. (By contrast, differences in race were 200 times less significant.)

The remaining four results may fly in the face of some preconceived notions: Addicts tend to be slightly better-educated and more employed than non-addicts. In fact, there are both more employed and more unemployed addicts than non-addicts. The big difference between the two populations is people who are not in the workforce, due to the lower number of retired people in the addict population.

Also, there is virtually no difference between addicts and non-addicts in terms of race or urban versus rural environment, despite portrayals in the media as addiction being a predominantly urban problem affecting minorities. As we will see in the next section, different races have huge differences regarding the types of drugs they take, but the overall rate of addiction is the same.

Characteristics of Substance Abuse

The National Survey of Drug Use and Health also tracks exactly what drugs its respondents abuse, and some revealing things can be found when these data are explored. The drugs consistently different from all the others are sedatives, which include barbiturates (such as phenobarbital) but not benzodiazepines like Valium. Compared to other drugs, sedative users tend to be older, female, highly educated, part-time or unemployed workers with high income, of races other than black (Hispanics are especially over-represented,) and live in small urban communities. Additionally, they tend to have worse physical health and drastically worse mental health. The drug that shows the biggest differences (but in fewer categories than sedatives) is inhalants, which includes glue and gasoline, as well as amyl nitrite and nitrous oxide. Those addicted to these drugs tend to be much more male, rural, poor, middle-aged, uneducated and in poor physical health. They also tend to be employed full-time and, like sedative users, have an insignificant number of black people among them.

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Although rural versus urban again shows only a small difference between most drugs, race is a significant differentiating factor between different types of drugs. Heroin and tranquilizers are the drugs most overrepresented among whites, cocaine and hallucinogens among blacks, and sedatives and inhalants among Hispanics.


Now that we have access to much more information than ever before, it’s possible to make data-driven decisions to pinpoint where drug relief efforts would be most efficient. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 20.6 million Americans abuse and/or are dependent on alcohol or drugs. Using actual information instead of preconceived notions as to who those people might be is the first step to getting addiction recovery help to the ones who need it most.


NSDUH results were filtered to include only those over 18 years of age and older. Teens between 12 and 17 are asked different questions for many categories. Therefore, their results are not comparable to those of adults. We considered an “addict” to be a survey respondent who was flagged by NSDUH in a calculated field as showing “abuse” and/or “dependence” toward a particular drug based on their answers to questions concerning that drug. For the aggregates, we considered “addicts” to be a respondent who was flagged as described above for any of the drugs of abuse mentioned. Note that tobacco use, while tracked in NSDUH, was disregarded for this analysis. Each respondent was weighted using NSDUH’s own factor to map their responses into a representative portrait of the 235,124,273-member adult American population. One-way ANOVA was used to determine significance of differences between cohorts.

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