Family Substance Misuse Reported by Almost Half of US Adults

“The United States has a serious substance misuse problem” was the opening statement of the 2016 report by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on alcohol and drug addiction in America. The results from a new Gallup poll confirm that troubling assessment.

According to Gallup, an alarming 46 percent of American adults have dealt with substance misuse problems in their family. Eighteen percent reported just alcohol problems and 10 percent just drug problems, while 18 percent have experienced both.

“These findings are based on combined 2018-2019 data from Gallup's annual Consumption Habits poll, conducted each July. Overall, across the two polls, 36 percent of Americans reported that drinking has been a cause of trouble in their family and 28 percent said the same of drug abuse.” Gallup points out that “Both questions are lifetime measures, asking Americans if drinking or drug abuse has ever been a problem in their family.” 

Three Takeaways From Gallup Poll

1. Substance misuse is pervasive in America with half the nation’s families directly affected. This is a serious crisis. If half the nation’s families are impacted, half of the families in anyone’s community are affected—statistically speaking. Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point. People in addictive addiction are not only harming themselves. Invariably, they also cause highly destructive stress for their loved ones. Feelings of guilt and shame on all sides undermine the family dynamic and dysfunction typically ensues. 

It doesn’t stop there. The impact of widespread substance misuse and addiction radiates in all directions into the community, the county, the state, and ultimately into the nation. The Gallup numbers mean that circa 108 million Americans have experienced substance misuse problems in their family. The roughly 74 million Americans under the age of 18 were excluded from the Gallup survey. Many of them are likely to have experienced substance misuse problems in their family as well, in many cases involving traumatic “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs with potentially long-term negative consequences.

With substance misuse that prevalent, society as a whole will be affected. In July, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned that the nation’s opioid crisis is having a quite substantial impact on the economy. “An extraordinary number of people are taking opioids in one form or another,” Powell said during testimony before the House Financial Services Committee. “It weights on labor force participation, largely but not exclusively on younger males and younger women. It’s a national crisis, really.” Let’s remember that Powell was only talking about one kind of addictive substance in this case.  

2. Alcohol addiction continues to be overshadowed by the opioid crisis. Gallup has been tracking “drinking problems” since 1947 “when 15 percent reported having family problems with alcohol.” The percentage of people reporting problems “increased to 22 percent during the 1970s and reached 36 percent in the late 1990s. Since then, the incidence has varied between 28 and 37 percent, putting today's 36 percent on the high side.”

Surgeon General Murthy didn’t start his comprehensive assessment with opioids—although the epidemic misuse of prescription pain relievers was presumably the trigger for the report—but with statistics on alcohol addiction. With good reason: as the Gallup numbers show, approximately a third of Americans have consistently reported alcohol problems in their family. 

While media outlets frequently cover the opioid epidemic, alcohol, while mostly operating invisibly in the background, continues to be a much more dangerous substance. 

Murthy reported in 2016 that “alcohol misuse contributes to 88,000 deaths in the United States each year” and that one in ten deaths among working adults is due to alcohol misuse. By comparison, there were 47,055 drug overdose deaths in 2014. For 2018, that number is expected to exceed 68,000—still below alcohol-related mortality. It is worth noting that the 88,000 figure is based on decades-old research; some experts believe that alcohol-related deaths have long gone beyond 100,000.  

3. Polysubstance misuse is widespread. Almost a fifth of respondents in the Gallup poll reported that both drinking alcohol and using drugs are a cause of trouble in the family. This could mean several family members misusing different substances or one family member misusing drugs and alcohol concurrently. Taking multiple psychoactive substances without medical supervision is extremely dangerous. Combining illicit drug use with alcohol consumption is fairly common since alcoholic beverages are widely available and acquired legally in most cases. “Polysubstance use is common, particularly amongst some age groups and subcultures. It is also associated with elevated risk of psychiatric and physical health problems,” reported Connor et al in a 2014 study. Using multiple addictive substances concurrently significantly increases the risk of overdose. 

The Gallup poll is yet another indication of the severity of America’s substance misuse crisis. A troubling number of Americans misuse drugs or alcohol or both. Many of them require treatment but are unable or unwilling to get it. If half of the nation is directly impacted, the rest of the country can hardly remain unaffected.  

Recovery from addiction requires comprehensive treatment that looks at the whole patient, not just the particular substance use because biology, sociology, and psychology all play important roles in understanding addictive behavior. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use and could benefit from addiction treatment services, please contact The Farley Center at 800.582.6066 or fill out our admissions request form.