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Drug Use Still Among Americans' Top Worries

Drug Use Still Among Americans' Top Worries

Concern higher among women, older Americans

by Linda Lyons

Illicit drug use among the overall population has declined over the past quarter-century, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Heath Services Administration, and is roughly half of what it was in 1979. There has even been a drop in use among teens. A new report on the Child Well-Being Index released last week by the Foundation for Child Development found drug use has fallen from 30.7% of high school seniors in 1975 to 23.4% in 2004.

Still, 42% of adults worry about drug use "a great deal" in the United States and 23% worry  a "fair amount," according to a March 2005 Gallup Poll*. Gallup presented a list of 12 issues facing the country and asked respondents how personally worried they are about each one. The percentage who worry a great deal about drug use has consistently been among the top five concerns since Gallup began asking this question in March 2001.

When the question was first asked in March 2001, 58% of adults said they worried a great deal about drug use. The figure dropped to 49% the next year -- but a drop occurred among all items on the list and could have been tied to the emergence of terrorism as perhaps the most critical threat to Americans. Since 2002, the public's likelihood to worry about drug use has been relatively stable.

Worry Increases With Age

About half of American women (48%) say they worry about drugs a great deal, versus 35% of men -- but the data show women are much more likely to express worry on most of the social issues included in this question. Worry about drug use is also significantly higher among older Americans. Fifty-three percent of Americans aged 65 and older say they worry a great deal about drug use, as do 32% of 18- to 29-year-old adults. 

The difference in worry by age may reflect the fact that many older respondents raised their children during the 1960s and 1970s, when drugs proliferated in American culture. Jerry, a 74-year-old survey respondent from Massachusetts who raised five children during the 1970s, worries about drug use a great deal. "Fortunately," he says, "my own children are fine, but often they tell me about some of their childhood friends who became addicted to drugs. It breaks my heart to hear these stories about children that I still remember as the nicest little kids in the world."

Less-Educated, Lower-Income Americans Worry More About Drugs

Those whose socioeconomic status is lower tend to express a greater degree of worry about drug use. For example, about half (51%) of Americans with a high school education or less are highly concerned about drug use in the United States, compared with 29% of college graduates. Additionally, 59% of respondents whose households earn less than $30,000 annually say they are concerned about drug use, compared with just 26% of those making $75,000 a year or more.

Who Doesn't Worry?

A 48-year-old mother of two who lives in rural Minnesota is among the third of Americans who aren't that worried about drug use. "I think the problem is blown out of proportion," she says. "I grew up in the heart of Chicago during the 1970s when drugs were supposed to be rampant, but neither myself nor my siblings were ever involved with drugs or even witnessed any drug use. And my sister is raising seven children by herself in Chicago right now without any concerns about drugs."

But a more typical view about drugs in America may be given by a 42-year-old man in West Virginia who worries "a great deal" about it. "I read in my local newspapers about pushers going to junior high schools and giving meth to the kids just to get them hooked. It's so sad," he says. "The focus of drug-using has changed so much since the 1970s -- it's not just recreational use anymore, the drugs today are so much more dangerous."

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 7-10, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum  margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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