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The share of Americans who see drug addiction as a “major problem” in their community has declined in recent years, even as drug overdose deaths in the United States have risen sharply. Public concern about addiction has fallen even in parts of the United States where drug overdose death rates have risen the most.

A line chart showing that fatal drug overdose rates have increased in the US, but the share of Americans who say drug addiction is a major problem has decreased

This Pew Research Center analysis examines changing public attitudes about drug addiction in the United States, including the communities that have been hardest hit by fatal drug overdoses in recent years.

The public opinion data cited here comes from two Pew Research Center surveys. The first was conducted from February 24 to March 11, 2018 among 6,251 US adults, and the second was conducted from October 18 to 24, 2021 among 9,676 US adults. All participants in these two surveys were members of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through a national random sampling of residential addresses. That way, almost every American adult has a chance of being selected. Both surveys are weighted to be representative of the US adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, party affiliation, education and other categories. You can read more about ATP’s methodology, as well as the methodology for the 2018 and 2021 surveys.

The drug overdose death rates are taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER database, specifically the database that shows the underlying causes of death from 1999 to 2020. The Center asked age-adjusted drug overdose death rates for 2017 and 2020 at three levels of urbanization—urban, suburban, and rural—for each state and the District of Columbia separately. While the CDC uses six levels of urbanization based on the National Center for Health Statistics’ classification system, the Center collapsed those six groups into three: urban, suburban, and rural, following the same methodology used in a 2018 report.

In addition to examining different levels of urbanization, we also grouped respondents into categories based on fatal drug overdose rates in their type of area (urban, suburban, or rural). We used respondents’ counties of residence to group them into the specified areas. One analysis groups respondents based on whether urban-level drug overdose death rates in their area were higher or lower than the national average in a given time period. Another groups the same respondents by whether the change in the drug overdose death rate in their area between 2017 and 2020 was greater than the average increase. Survey results may differ from previously published results due to differences in how urban, rural, and suburban classifications were defined.

Nearly 92,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, compared to about 70,000 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During the same period, the rate of fatal overdoses increased from 21.7 to 28.3 per 100,000 people.

Despite these increases, the share of Americans who say drug addiction is a major problem in their local community declined 7 percentage points in subsequent Pew Research Center surveys, from 42% in 2018 to 35% in 2021. And in an independent poll by the Center in early 2022, the fight against drug addiction ranked lowest among 18 priorities the president and Congress must address this year.

Fatal drug overdose rates rose in urban, suburban and rural areas of the country between 2017 and 2020. But the share of Americans who say drug addiction is a major problem declined in all three types of areas in the Center’s subsequent surveys. These declines ranged from 10 percentage points in urban areas (from 43% in 2018 to 33% in 2021) to 5 points in suburban areas (from 39% to 34%).

Public concern about drug addiction has declined even in areas with high levels of drug overdose deaths. In areas of the country with higher than average drug overdose death rates in 2017 and 2020, the share of Americans who say drug addiction is a major problem in their community decreased by 8 points between 2018 and 2021, from 45% to 37%.

This pattern is nearly identical in areas where drug overdose death rates increased more than the average increase between 2017 and 2020. 44% of Americans living in these areas said addiction to drugs was a significant problem in their community in 2018, but this share dropped. to 38% in 2021.

It’s unclear why public concern about drug addiction has waned in recent years, even in areas where overdose death rates have risen rapidly. The Center’s polls show that Americans have prioritized other issues, including the national economy, reducing health care costs and dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. The increase in overdose deaths may also be overshadowed, especially amid the high death toll attributed to the coronavirus outbreak (although, as of this month, far fewer see the virus as a major problem in the which the country faces).

Meltem Odabaş is a computational social scientist focused on data science at the Pew Research Center.

Source: Concern over drug addiction eases even as fatal overdoses rise most in U.S.

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