A Surprising Look at the Most Addictive Drugs in the World

Most people assume that hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are the most addictive kind of drugs available. While the addictive properties in these commonly-abused drugs are intense, availability and frequency of use are also factors in their addictive potential. But not all highly-addictive drugs are illegal, and getting them can be as easy as taking a trip to the grocery store.

Most Addictive Drugs in the World


Man smoking cigarette

As the primary cause of preventable disability, disease and death in America, smoking continues to claim the lives of 480,000 US citizens annually.1 Currently, an estimated 42 million adult Americans are cigarette smokers. Recent research points to 13.4 million people smoking tobacco via cigars, 2.5 million via pipes, and another nine million chew their tobacco.2 Chewing or snorting tobacco products releases more nicotine into the bloodstream than smoking, and cigars and pipe tobacco have higher nicotine concentrations than cigarettes.3

Use of any nicotine increases your risk of cancer, lung and heart disease, and oral disease.4 Nicotine products are sold over the counter in convenience stores, supermarkets, and gas stations. In America, it’s been a common part of our commercial culture until recently, when pharmacies like CVS committed to ceasing the sales of tobacco products in their retail stores.5 As with other drugs of abuse, the earlier a person begins using tobacco products the more likely he or she is to develop addiction.


Cup of coffee

Americans consume 170 liters of soda annually.6 With variants of 16 to 55 mg of caffeine in a given 12-ounce soda, that can mean a lot of caffeine.7 Of course, soda isn’t the only culprit; Americans down about three cups of coffee every day per person on average.8 One 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains anywhere from 95 to 200 mg of caffeine.9 Caffeine concentrations in supersized energy drinks are far higher. Popular fat burners and over-the-counter pills like No-Doz promise to deliver a quick boost of energy and mental clarity while contributing to caffeine addiction behind the scenes for many.

Americans lead the world in coffee consumption, but something bigger, like caffeine addiction, may be to blame.10 When caffeine enters the brain, it affects nerve centers that are responsible for neurological reward systems. In essence, caffeine makes you feel good and the releasing of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex of your mind reinforces the behavior and makes you want to do it again and again.11 Regular consumption of caffeine has been associated with cancer, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease.


Heroin is a derivative of the opium poppy plant that is grown mostly in southern Asia and Latin America. Heroin addiction and overdose have reached epidemic proportions across the United States. Heroin acts on opioid receptors in the brain involved with pain and reward mechanisms.12

The effects are felt pretty quickly — including the rush that heroin abusers seek — a pleasant and euphoric sensation when the skin flushes with warmth. The risk of addiction correlates highly with the drug’s potency, but those who struggle with heroin abuse are also at increased risk if they struggle with mental illness or began using heroin at a younger age. It is thought that around 23 percent of all heroin users become addicted to the drug.13


Cocaine lines

Cocaine is a derivative of the coca leaf and is second in line only to methamphetamines when it comes to psychological dependence. Upon reaching the brain, cocaine causes a surging high feeling that is immediately followed by a plummeting low. This high is achieved because cocaine inhibits the brain from reabsorbing released dopamine. Tolerance builds quickly with cocaine use, requiring more frequent stronger doses of the drug to achieve the same high — something that often leads to serious health consequences or death.

Perhaps one of the biggest risk factors for cocaine use and dependence is among those who are already using other drugs. Studies show that children ages 12 to 17 who use drugs like cannabis, alcohol and tobacco are up to 266 times more likely to use cocaine than children of the same age who do not use any gateway drugs. Per the study, children who used marijuana were 85 times more likely to use cocaine, and those who drank were 50 times more likely to use the drug.14


Alcoholic man with drink

Although efforts have been made over the years to dampen alcohol usage, even banning it in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, it continues to increase in popularity. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, while 70.1 percent reported that they drank in the past year and 56.0 percent reported that they drank in the past month.15

With the amount of alcohol being consumed in the United States at its highest level in recent history, it’s no surprise that alcohol is one of the leading risk factor for disease in America.

When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it progresses to the brain where it increases norepinephrine levels, a feel-good chemical that heightens your state of arousal. It also delays effects on the cerebellum which accounts a person’s slowed reaction time.16 About 18 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder.17 This legal substance creeps into the lives of many, often in adolescence and during the college years, aiding in an increased risk for the development of alcohol dependency. Having a parent who is addicted to alcohol also increases your risk of alcohol addiction.

Finding Help for Addiction

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline, 760-548-4032, 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.

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1Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 Dec. 2016. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

2“Tobacco and Cancer.” American Cancer Society. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

3“Cigar smoking: Safer than cigarette smoking?” Mayo Clinic. 13 July 2016. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

4“Cigar smoking: Safer than cigarette smoking?” Mayo Clinic. 13 July 2016. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

5 Japsen, Bruce. “After CVS Stopped Cigarette Sales, Smokers Stopped Buying Elsewhere, Too.” Forbes 21 Feb. 2017. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

6 Check, Dan, et al. “Map: Americans Drink More Soda Than Anyone Else in the World.” Slate Magazine. 12 July 2012. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

7“Caffeine content for coffee, tea, soda and more.” Mayo Clinic. 14 Apr. 2017. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

8 Fernau, Karen. “Coffee grinds fuel for the nation.” The Arizona Republic. USA Today. 9 Apr. 2013. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

9“Caffeine content for coffee, tea, soda and more.” Mayo Clinic.14 Apr. 2017. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

100 Fernau, Karen. “Coffee grinds fuel for the nation.” The Arizona Republic, USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 9 Apr. 2013. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

11 Chawla, Jasvinder. “Neurologic Effects of Caffeine.” Overview, Consumption of Caffeine, Physiologic Effects of Caffeine, Medscape, 12 Apr. 2017. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

122 Abuse, National Institute on Drug. “Heroin.”  National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). July 2017. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

13 Ibid.

14“Introduction.”  National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Jan. 2014. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

15“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2017. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

16“Alcohol's Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

17“Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse: MedlinePlus.” MedlinePlus. 21 Sept. 2016. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

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