How does social class affect drug abuse?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on July 19th, 2008 - Last updated: May 28th, 2024
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Dear Stanton

Where can I find information about drug use and social stratification? More specifically, where can I find information on what types of drugs are used within specific social classes?



Dear B.:

One of the most common myths is that drug abuse and alcoholism are “equal opportunity” destroyers. This is not true. Sometimes, in making this claim, the claimant points to overall prevalence figures, which often show that white, middle-class people use drugs as frequently—or more so—than lower socioeconomic status groups and minorities.

But these data always end up showing more unhealthy usage patterns among lower SES groups. Perhaps the best illustration of this pattern is drinking. Higher SES groups both drink more often—and drink more often without problems. Put alternately, lower SES groups have fewer drinkers, but a higher percentage of this smaller number drinks problematically.

Nonetheless, popular claims that the middle class is more endangered by drugs than lower SES groups remain prominent. And yet it is obvious how silly this claim is. Is it more common in the suburbs or inner cities to find drug assassinations and violence, children abused by drug users, people incapacitated by drugs and alcohol, and so on? The logic often used to undercut these truisms is that people with greater resources are simply better able to hide their dysfunctional drug use. But if addiction is characterized by loss of control of drug use, is this statement not self-contradicting?

There are certain exceptions to the trend towards greater addiction/substance abuse problems in less privileged groups. These are areas of special concern to middle class people—or the better access of the middle class to the objects of the addiction. Thus, middle class people are more likely to have bulimia or exercise addictions, because these reflect particularly middle-class concerns. Likewise, middle-class people will more likely be addicted to antidepressants and tranquilizers, since prescription drugs are more in the province of employed, insured people.

However, the simple equation that greater resources — more drug use is self-evidently disproven by the most widely abused drug—cigarettes. I remember speaking at a prominent Canadian animal research center (Concordia University, where Roy Wise works). I asked the assembled whether middle class or lower class people are more likely to smoke. Several researchers actually claimed that smoking was more prevalent among those better-off economically. This is in fact incorrect; there is an inverse correlation between social class and smoking. Although people better-off economically could more readily afford cigarettes, they are prevented from smoking by greater health consciousness and enabled to avoid cigarette addiction by better control of their environments and the availability for them of more alternatives.


Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Donald says:

    Why don’t you consider the role that sin plays in its impact on various class group, (rich or poor) when it becomes a weighted conversation on whether or not resources or the lack of it causes drug addiction. The poor can have significant increases of crime so that they can obtain their drugs While the rich have more of an opportunity to abuse or get addicted to prescription substances. The factor to be studied is evil and whether or not the church should play a bigger role in contemporary society.

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