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Substance Abuse Hits Home for Close to Half of Americans

Substance Abuse Hits Home for Close to Half of Americans

Story Highlights

  • More than a third of Americans say alcohol has caused trouble in family
  • More than a fourth report family troubles because of drug abuse
  • Altogether, 46% have experienced one or the other issue

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Close to half of U.S. adults, 46%, have dealt with substance abuse problems in their family: 18% have had just alcohol problems and 10% have had just drug problems, while 18% have experienced both.

Summary of Americans' Experience With Drinking and Drug Abuse as Family Problems
U.S. adults
Drinking, only, a cause of trouble in family 18
Drugs, only, a cause of trouble in family 10
Drinking and drugs both causes of trouble in family 18
Neither 54
Gallup, 2018-2019

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% of Americans reported that drinking has been a cause of trouble in their family and 28% said the same of drug abuse.

Both questions are lifetime measures, asking Americans if drinking or drug abuse has ever been a problem in their family. It might be expected that the rates of reported problems would increase by age, given that older Americans have had more time to accumulate life experiences, but that is not the case.

  • Reported family problems with drinking are similar among adults of all age groups -- at or near 35%.
  • The relationship is the opposite of what might be expected for drugs, as a higher percentage of adults under 55 (31%) than of those 55 and older (24%) say there has ever been a problem with drug abuse in their family.

Women are slightly more likely than men to report family problems with drugs, while adults without a college degree (39%) are more likely than those with a degree (32%) to report family drinking problems.

Those who rarely or never attend a worship service report higher rates of family problems with drinking and drugs than those who go weekly.

Some regional differences are also seen, with residents of the West more likely than those in the East to report drinking problems. Westerners are also more likely than Easterners and Southerners to report family drug problems. However, no other regional differences are statistically significant.

Has drinking/drug abuse ever been a cause of trouble in your family?
% Yes for each problem, by key subgroup
Drinking Drug abuse
% %
Men 35 26
Women 38 31
18 to 34 38 30
35 to 54 35 31
55 and older 37 25
College graduate 32 26
Not college graduate 39 30
Non-Hispanic white 37 28
Nonwhite 35 29
East 32 26
Midwest 38 24
South 35 28
West 41 34
Attendance at religious services
Weekly 33 23
Nearly weekly/Monthly 36 26
Seldom/Never 39 32
Gallup, 2018-2019

Reported Drinking Problems Higher in Recent Decades Than Previously

Gallup's trend on drinking problems starts in 1947, when 15% reported having family problems with alcohol. The percentage reporting problems increased to 22% during the 1970s and reached 36% in the late 1990s. Since then, the incidence has varied between 28% and 37%, putting today's 36% on the high side.

Whether the long-term rise in reported drinking problems reflects real changes, greater respondent awareness of drinking problems or greater willingness to report them isn't clear. One thing is clear: Drinking isn't more common today than it was then, with similar percentages of Americans in the 1940s and today reporting that they drink alcohol -- around 65%.

Line graph. 1947-2019 Trend on Americans who say drinking has been a cause of trouble in their family.

Gallup's trend line on drugs as a family problem is shorter, having started in 1995. For the first decade after that, the percentage reporting drug abuse as a family problem rose slightly, from an average 18% to just over 20%. After a long gap in measurement, Gallup's subsequent readings from 2018-2019 are up further, averaging 28%.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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