As the U.S. considers drug policy reforms and marijuana legalization, there’s one part of the war on drugs that remains perplexingly contradictory: the most harmful drugs in the U.S. are legal.
Available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that tobacco, alcohol, and opioid-based prescription painkillers are responsible for more direct fatalities than any other drug in 2011.
When it comes to deadliness, tobacco leads the way – by far. Fewer Americans die from reported drug overdoses, traffic accidents, and homicides combined than tobacco-related health problems like lung cancer and heart disease. Cigarette smoking is attributed to one in five deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. Furthermore, nearly 42,000 of the 480,000 deaths are caused by secondhand smoke.
Alcohol-related health problems, such as liver disease, caused more than 26,000 deaths in 2011. When including other alcohol-related causes of death like drunk driving and other accidents, the death toll rises to 88,000 per year.
Opioid-related prescription painkillers have been associated with an increase in overdose deaths since 1999. The deaths frequently involve multiple drugs. The CDC found 31 percent of prescription painkiller-related overdose deaths in 2011 were also related to benzodiazepines, a legal anti-anxiety drug.