Top Abused Substances in the World

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What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is simply defined in the dictionary as an overindulgence in or dependence on an addictive substance. When most people think about substance abuse, they picture someone smoking crack, shooting up heroin in some dark alley, or popping pills at a party, but substance abuse actually goes beyond this. Substance abuse is, as defined, overindulgence in any addictive abused substances which includes sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and those illegal substances that often come to mind. The thing to remember that abuse means used in a way that is not recommended or intended, so there is some room for interpretation.

Think of it this way, sugar can be abused, but just eating sugar is not abuse if you are doing it in a reasonable manner. However, using cocaine a single time signifies abuse because it is illegal. There are grey areas as well with products like tobacco which are legal, but not recommended so this could also be considered abuse as tobacco is never a necessary substance for survival. There are also other terms that are often used interchangeably with substance abuse, like addiction, substance use disorder, and drug abuse, but these are different in specific definitions. It is all quite confusing, but for the purposes of this article we will focus on abuse of substances, legal or illegal around the world.

Top Abused Substances – Tobacco

There are many substances that are abused around the world, but the most common is totally legal for people of a certain age: tobacco/nicotine. Tobacco and thus nicotine are the most abused substances throughout the world. While it is not surprising that something legal is often abused, it is shocking at the dangers of this drug that are overlooked due to its commonality. Tobacco and nicotine are lumped together for obvious reasons as tobacco contains nicotine which is the actual addictive substance. According to the World Health Organization there are about 15 billion cigarettes sold each day around the world. If the trend continues, by the year 2030, one in six people will be killed by smoking. This is just related to cigarettes, though this number could be expanded exponentially if those who use nicotine through vaping, e-cigarettes, and chewing tobacco were also included.

Smoking is dangerous for the user who can get cancer, mouth sores, infections, and more, but also to those around as second hand smoke can be just as deadly. While those in the professional field may not consider the addiction to nicotine and tobacco as serious as harder drugs, it could potentially kill more people over time than several harder drugs combined. There is another issue with those who smoke or use tobacco that can compound the problem. Many who smoke are also addicted to caffeine. Though caffeine is rarely deadly, it is addictive and unhealthy. Those who smoke and pair it with large amounts of caffeine could easily damage the heart as it has to work overtime and at a more rapid pace.


The second most abused substance in the world is also largely legal for those of age: alcohol. Alcohol, whether consumed as mixed drinks, a dinner addiction, straight, or in large quantities such as when binge drinking, is dangerous. Alcohol is not only hard on the body, but leads to traffic fatalities, violence, and many related deaths around the world each week. Even though alcohol abuse is serious, it is legal unless someone else is harmed. This means that in some countries it is not looked at as being harmful and abuse is rampant. With smoking, there are signs like the smell of smoke, cigarette butts, etc, but alcohol use is often easier to hide, though hiding it is not necessary because it is legal for those of a certain age.

The most common signs of alcohol abuse are:

  • Regular blackout periods
  • Being unable to stop drinking
  • Tolerance to alcohol (drinking more with smaller effects)
  • Withdrawal without alcohol
  • Performance or relationship issues (family, friends, work, or school)
  • Carelessness about responsibility
  • Drinking when under stress (good or bad stress)
  • Lying about drinking behaviors
  • Physical signs of alcoholism
  • Taking part in dangerous activities while drinking (driving, operating machinery, swimming, etc.)

Not everyone will show all the signs and someone could drink for a long period of time before any real signs are evident, but if the abuse turns into alcoholism then the physical signs will be harder to miss or ignore.

Physical signs include things like:

  • Excessive weight loss or gain
  • Dry skin
  • Premature aging
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Bruises and unexplained injuries
  • Damaged capillaries in the face as well as flushed skin
  • Fragile hair and nails.

Prescription Medications

The third top abused substances around the world are prescription medications. It is scary that the top three abused substances are all legal, but this also means they are more available. Prescription drugs are not as easily obtained as alcohol or tobacco and nicotine, but they are still highly available. Opiates, depressants, and stimulants are the most often abused and the since 2005, according to the World Health Organization, abuse has risen 300% or more. The scariest part is even when prescribed by a doctor, many prescription medications have horrible side effects, including death.

Prescription drug abuse can be hard to spot as different medications have different side effects, but those common to prescription medication abuse are things like:

  • Doctor shopping
  • Using multiple pharmacies
  • Running out of medications early
  • Not wanting to be away from medication for any length of time

There are obviously other effects, but these are common to all prescription medication abusers as the need for the drug begins to take over. Even if the goal was not to abuse a specific medication, it can still occur.

Getting Help

If you or a loved one has a substance abuse problem with any of the top three substances in the world or any others, then seek professional help. The River offers a 4 or 12 week program to get you started on the path to healing and wellness. The top ranked luxury rehab located in Asia can help you find your center and your joy without the use of substances. All it takes to get started is a phone call. You deserve to live life without being tied to an addiction and The River can help.