How Drug Use Affects Our Society

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The estimated cost of drug abuse in the United States—including illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco—is more than $740 billion a year and growing. Substance abuse in the U.S. costs society in increased healthcare costs, crime, and lost productivity.

Costs by Drug Type

The total costs related to each type of drug include:

  • Tobacco: $300 billion
  • The total economic cost of smoking annually includes nearly $170 billion in direct medical costs for adults and more than $156 billion in productivity that's lost because of effects from exposure to secondhand smoke and untimely death.
  • Alcohol abuse: $249 billion
  • Binge drinking accounts for $191 billion of the total cost to society for excessive alcohol consumption. Most of the cost is associated with lost productivity at work (77 percent), while other factors include legal expenses (10 percent), medical expenses from binge drinking (11 percent), and healthcare expenses from alcohol-related accidents (5 percent).
  • Illegal drug abuse: $193 billion
  • Prescription drug abuse: $78.5 billion

Other Costs to Society

The total costs to society for substance abuse goes beyond the financial costs. Other costs include:

  • The spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C
  • Deaths from overdose
  • Effects on unborn children
  • Crime, unemployment, domestic abuse, divorce, and homelessness

Impact on Workplace Productivity

Drug abuse costs the nation more than $120 billion per year in lost productivity, according to The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC). Included in that lost productivity are reduced labor participation, incarceration, premature mortality, hospitalization, and participation in treatment programs away from work.

According to NDIC estimates, drug abuse accounts for:

  • $49 billion in reduced workdays
  • $48 billion in incarceration expenses
  • $4 billion due to premature deaths

Impact on Crime and Criminal Justice Systems

The NDIC estimates that the annual cost of drug-related crime in the United States is more than $61 billion with the criminal justice system cost making up $56 billion of that cost.

Crack cocaine and methamphetamine are the drugs that most often contribute to the commission of crimes in the U.S., according to the National Drug Threat Survey. Heroin use is a significant factor in the commission of property crimes.

From 63 percent to 83 percent of all arrestees test positive for illicit substances at the time of their arrest, according to the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program (ADAM II), which monitors arrestees in 10 cities across the U.S.

Twelve percent to 50 percent of arrestees test positive for more than one drug in their system when arrested.

Impact on Health and Healthcare Systems

Annual drug-related healthcare cost in the U.S. is more than $11 billion, the NDIC reports. That figure includes both direct and indirect costs related to:

  • Medical intervention, including emergency services
  • Inpatient drug treatment
  • Prevention and treatment research

The NDIC estimates that the annual costs of emergency department visits related to drug abuse are $161 million, with an additional $5.5 million in costs for those who have to be hospitalized.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Drugged Driving, Toxic Meth Labs

On top of direct healthcare costs, drug abuse produces costs associated with driving under the influence of drugs, parental neglect, and exposure to toxic methamphetamine labs. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 20.7 million people who were 16 or older drove after drinking alcohol in 2016. Another 11.8 million drove after taking illicit drugs.

Clandestine methamphetamine labs have produced a growing number of law enforcement and first responder personnel being exposed to toxic chemicals, fires, and explosions. Children who live in homes where there are meth labs are also at great risk for negative health consequences.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Trends and Statistics. Published online, updated Feb. 2020.

  2. Xu X, Bishop EE, Kennedy SM, Simpson SA, Pechacek TF. Annual Healthcare Spending Attributable to Cigarette Smoking: An Update. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2014;48(3):326–33. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2014.10.012

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Excessive Drinking is Draining the U.S. Economy. Updated January 2016.

  4. National Drug Intelligence Center. National Drug Threat Assessment. Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice; 2011. www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs44/44849/44849p.pdf

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  6. National Drug Intelligence Center. National Drug Threat Assessment 2011. U.S. Department of Justice. Published August 2011.

  7. Office of National Drug Control Policy. ADAM II: 2013 Annual Report. Executive Office of the President. Published January 2014.

  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugged Driving. Published online, updated June 2016.

Additional Reading
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking & Tobacco Use: Fast Facts.Updated November 16, 2017.