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HOT TOPICS: Alcoholism  Addiction  AA  Cocaine  Heroin

The World's Most Wasted Countries

Think the US has the world's worst drug problem? Think again. From Iran's staggering heroin epidemic to France's passion for pills, The Fix spotlights the world's 10 most addicted nations. 

  • Iran: Heroin

    Sandwiched between Afghanistan and the West, Iran is smack bang in the middle of a major opiate smuggling route, and this has impacted upon the country’s growing drug problem. Since the revolution, the number of heroin addicts in Iran has risen sharply to an official estimate of around 3.5 million. Hossein Dejakam, a former addict who set up the Aftab Society, believes a lack of professional expertise is one of the factors contributing to wide spread abuse. “We don’t have a single expert on addiction,” he says. Instead, the government relies heavily on NGO’s like Narcotics Anonymous and the Aftab Society to help educate addicts, offer support, and provide needle exchange and methadone substitutes.

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  • UK: Alcohol

    Anyone who’s ever been out for a “quick drink” with a Brit can attest to the fact that an Englishman’s attitude about recreational drinking differs radically from that of the rest of the world. According to the BBC, alcohol is thought to be responsible for 34,000 deaths in the UK each year because of the damage it does to the body—plus many more because of the indirect effect of alcohol. Also, binge drinking is a huge phenomenon in the UK, costing the economy approximately £20 billion a year. Seventeen million working days a year are estimated to be lost due to hangovers and drink-related illness. The cost of binge drinking to employers is estimated to be £6.4 billion and alcohol harm is thought to cost the National Health Service £2.7 billion. The reasons why the UK has such a chronic problem range from the social and cultural—you rarely see a Brit relaxing without a glass in hand—to the fact that alcohol is punitively cheap and available. The UK loves to live in denial: even public health message boards carry blatantly optimistic articles declaring that “the real problem is that people don't actually know how much they are—or should be—drinking.”

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  • France: Prescription pills

    Apparently, despite their love of fine wine, the French don’t binge drink like the Brits because they hate hangovers. They do, however, seem to like their tranquilizers, which has led commentators to suggest that the nation may have a surplus of prescription-happy practitioners. It’s undeniable that France has more pharmacies per person than any other European country—23,271 for about 60 million people, almost double the number in the United Kingdom (which has a similar population). France almost topples the US problem with prescription medication abuse by consuming 78 tranquilizers and antidepressants per 1,000 people. 

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  • Slovakia: Inhalants

    With 13% of drug users regularly abusing inhalants, Slovakia comes out top of the charts for its incidents of huffing. Through a study of Roma youth, researcher Peter Vazan found that easy access to toluene, a paint thinner, increased the incidence of abuse, and concluded that the current treatment is ineffective. He found a link between poverty, lack of social mobility, discrimination, social prejudice and availability of toluene. The 2001 documentary Children Underground also highlighted similar problems in the Romany Youth of Romania.

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  • Russia: Alcohol

    Government revenue in Russia has been dependent on alcohol for centuries, which certainly doesn’t help the country’s enormous problems with alcoholism. Official statistics state that there are about seven million alcoholics in Russia, though experts suspect the number to be much higher. A study in The Lancet examined deaths between 1990 and 2001 of residents of three Siberian industrial towns with typical mortality rates; 52% of those between the ages of 15 and 54 were found to be the result of alcohol abuse. In June, 2009, the Public Chamber of Russia reported “over 500,000 alcohol-related deaths annually, noting that Russians consume about 18 liters of spirits a year”—more than double the eight liters that World Health Organization experts consider dangerous.

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  • Afghanistan: Heroin

    After the U.S. toppled the Taliban, they inadvertently helped Afghanistan regain top place as the world’s foremost producer of heroin. Previously the Taliban had outlawed the cultivation of opium poppies but responsibility for destroying poppy fields now lies with the international community. As heroin production has flourished, prices have gone down and, at only a few dollars per gram on the country’s streets, heroin and other opiates provide a welcome escape from the drudgery of poverty for Afghan nationals. According to UN figures, between 2005 and 2009, the number of opiate drug users in Afghanistan grew by 53 percent to 230,000, with six percent of those figures pertaining to intravenous drug users. This means that nearly three percent of Afghans between the ages of 15 and 64 are addicted to opiates, according to a study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

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  • Canada: Pot

    If an award for Toker Nation had to be handed out in the developed world, it would have to go to Canada. According to the 2007 World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 16.8 percent of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 64 smoked pot last year. This is in part due to what The Guardian calls Canada’s “substantial and highly profitable marijuana industry that is almost completely dependent on the U.S. market”: between 60 and 90 percent of the marijuana produced domestically in Canada is exported to the US via cross-border smuggling operations.

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  • United States: Prescription pills

    The misuse of prescribed medication in order “to get high” is the nation’s most prevalent drug problem after marijuana use. It’s estimated that up to 20% of people in the US have used prescription pharmaceuticals—narcotic painkillers, sedatives, tranquilizers and stimulants—for reasons other than why they were prescribed. In 2000, about 43 percent of hospital emergency admissions (that’s about half a million people) were the result of prescription drug abuse. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) show that “nearly one-third of people aged 12 and over who used drugs for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug non-medically.” The Obama administration has responded to the growing crisis with its 2011 Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan, which outlines action in four major areas designed to combat abuse: education, monitoring, proper medication disposal and enforcement. But the rest of the world might be thinking that the day the US takes addictive medication out of the free-market economy is when this little problem will start to be resolved.

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  • Brazil: Oxi

    Brazil’s been hitting the headlines recently with its contribution to the addiction canon in the form of Oxi—not a misspelling of a little opiate pill with a big pull but Oxidado, the latest drug to emerge in the Amazon basin. Oxi (or “rust”) is a highly addictive mixture of cocaine paste, gasoline, kerosene and quicklime, which is far more powerful than crack at just a fraction of the price. It’s essentially a corrupted version of crack that is consumed in the same way: through smokeable rocks or bumps. There are an estimated 8,000 users in western Brazil, and its highly addictive properties have been imbued with an almost mythical power in the numerous scare-mongering articles sweeping through the online press. Still, only time will tell whether this “super drug” will branch out into a chronic worldwide epidemic rather than merely media-hyped speculation.

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  • Mexico: Meth

    Mexico used to be sitting pretty as a nation largely untouched by addiction problems, despite housing a considerable number of drug cartels, meth labs and other entrepreneurial spirits. Mexico was a provider, not a consumer, if you want to get all socio-economic about it. However, since 2007, that’s started to change as increased US border control has forced traffickers to look closer to home for viable markets. This doesn’t, however, seem to change the ongoing debate that exists between Mexico and the US—where the US point all the blame at Mexico for providing them with illegal narcotics, and Mexico has to shoulder the blame for the US’s enormous drug consumption problem. The problem, of course, is that such squabbles tend to obfuscate the growing numbers of addicts in Mexico, the newness of this problem, and the lack of viable treatment options for them.

    Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, was published by Viking in 2008. She's also written about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics, and can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.

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By The Fix staff 06/11/11

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