As the US debates drug policy reforms and marijuana legalization, there’s one aspect of the war on drugs that remains perplexingly contradictory: some of the most dangerous drugs in the US are legal.
Don’t believe it? The available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows tobacco, alcohol, and opioid-based prescription painkillers were responsible for more direct deaths in one year than any other drug. The chart above compares those drug deaths with the best available data for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana deaths.
Now, this chart isn’t a perfect comparison across the board. One driver of tobacco and alcohol deaths is that both substances are legal and easily available. Other substances would likely be far deadlier if they were as available as tobacco and alcohol. (Heroin-linked deaths in particular have been trending up since 2010, topping 8,200 in 2013, making heroin deadlier overall than cocaine.) And federal data excludes some deaths, particularly less direct illicit drug deaths, which is why the chart focuses on direct health complications for all drugs.
Deaths also aren’t the only way to compare drugs’ harms. Some drugs, such as alcohol and cocaine, may induce dangerous behavior that makes someone more predisposed to violence or crime. Other drugs may trigger underlying mental health problems or psychotic episodes, like hallucinogenics. When evaluating the overall harm caused by drugs, all of these factors should be taken into account.
But the absolute numbers for deaths show legality doesn’t necessarily correlate with safety. Sometimes, like in the case of alcohol and tobacco, dangerous drugs have been kept legal because they’re so ingrained in the US economy and culture that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to try to ban them. Other times, as with prescription painkillers, dangerous drugs are kept legal to serve an important medical purpose. These types of considerations are just some of the many factors that play into drug policymaking, which is very often about picking the best of a lot of bad or mediocre options instead of finding the perfect solution.
Still, the death tolls show that the legal drugs remain a major public health problem — and, according to experts and researchers, policymakers could do more to curb deaths caused by the three deadliest drugs.
When it comes to deadliness, no single substance comes close to tobacco. To put its risk in perspective, fewer Americans die from reported drug overdoses, traffic accidents, and homicides combined than tobacco-caused health problems like lung cancer and heart disease.
The chart at the top of this article actually understates the number of tobacco deaths, since it only considers the most direct causes of deaths and excludes secondhand smoking, perinatal conditions, and residential fires.
Overall, cigarette smoking is linked to one in five deaths in the US each year, according to CDC estimates for average annual fatalities based on deaths between 2005 and 2009. Nearly 42,000 of the total 480,000 deaths from smoking are caused by secondhand smoke.
US tobacco use has greatly declined in the past several decades, although nearly one in five high school students and adults still smoked cigarettes in 2011. Experts attribute the decline to various factors, including education campaigns, mandatory warning labels, public and workplace smoking bans, and higher taxes on tobacco products. Continuing these efforts, public health officials hope, will continue pushing down the rate of smoking in the US.
Alcohol-induced health problems, such as liver disease, led to more than 26,000 deaths in 2011. But that actually under-counts the number of deaths caused by alcohol: when including other causes of death like drunk driving and other accidents, the toll rises to 88,000 per year.
Even this higher number may understate the more general risk of alcohol. A previous analysis, led by British researcher David Nutt and published in The Lancet, took a comprehensive look at 20 of the world’s most popular drugs and the risks they pose in the UK. A conference of drug experts measured all the factors involved — mortality, other physical damage, chance of developing dependence, impairment of mental function, effect on crime, and so on — and assigned each drug a score. They concluded alcohol is by far the most dangerous drug to society as a whole.
What makes alcohol so dangerous? The health effects of excessive drinking and drunk driving are two obvious problems. But there are other major issues rooted in alcohol-induced aggression and erratic behavior: injuries, economic productivity costs, family adversities, and even crime. (Alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.)
Still, The Lancet‘s report has come under some major criticisms. Although drug policy experts generally agree that alcohol is dangerous — and definitely more dangerous than marijuana — they argue the report misses some of the nuance behind each drug’s harms. For one, it doesn’t entirely control for the availability of these drugs, so it’s possible heroin and crack cocaine in particular would be ranked higher if they were as readily available as alcohol. And the findings are based on the UK, so the specific scores would likely differ to some extent for the US — particularly for meth, which is more widely available in the states.
alcohol is definitely more dangerous than marijuana
To show the Nutt analysis’s flaws, Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, gave the example of an alien race visiting Earth and asking which land animal is the biggest. If the question is about weight, the African elephant is the biggest land animal. But if it’s about height, the giraffe is the biggest. And if the question is about length, the reticulated python is the biggest.
“You can always create some composite, but composites are fraught with problems,” Caulkins said. “I think it’s more misleading than useful.”
The blunt measures of drug harms present similar issues. Alcohol, tobacco, and prescription painkillers are likely deadlier than other drugs because they are legal, so comparing their aggregate effects to illegal drugs is difficult. Some drugs are very harmful to individuals, but they’re so rarely used that they may not be a major public health threat. A few drugs are enormously dangerous in the short-term but not the long-term (heroin), or vice versa (tobacco). And looking at deaths or other harms caused by certain drugs doesn’t always account for substances, such as prescription medications, that are often mixed with others, making them more deadly or harmful than they would be alone.
Still, experts acknowledge, it’s clear alcohol is dangerous and deadly. To curb the deaths and risks linked to alcohol, experts often suggest tighter regulations, taxes, and more education. A previous analysis by the RAND Corporation found that states that sold alcohol through tightly regulated, state-run establishments kept prices higher, reduced access for youth, and decreased drinking overall. And studies show that higher alcohol taxes could reduce consumption and, as a result, the problems the drug causes.