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Asian American Discrimination and Substance Use

Marcel Gemme By Marcel Gemme | Last Updated: 31 May 2024

Hard Facts about AAPI Discrimination

  • 58% of Asian Americans believe that racist views toward them have increased since the pandemic.
  • There were several thousand incidences of xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans during the onset of the pandemic.
  • The Atlanta Spa Shootings shed light on the fact that racism in America isn’t only targeted towards blacks and Latinos
  • AAPI racism is a longstanding problem that began in the 1850s.
  • Systemic racism has prevented Asian Americans from progressing into positions of power where they can expose these issues and effect change.
  • What You'll Learn

Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw a disturbing rise in anti-Asian racism.

Starting with the virus’s appearance in Wuhan, China, the President and many media outlets forwarded a message that the “Kung Flu” was inevitable and Asians were to blame.

Since then, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in violence and hate crimes targeted at Asian Americans or anyone who appears to be of Asian descent.

A significant issue that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves is the impact of substance use on the Asian American population. There are many stereotypes and bigoted beliefs that Asians do not suffer from Alcoholism or substance use disorders, despite evidence to the contrary.

This viewpoint has denied many the ability to see that addiction is as big an issue for people of Asian descent as anyone else. The information below will demonstrate why.


Asian Americans have struggled with extreme racism since they first came to this country. In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants began coming mainly to the Western American states. They filled high-demand, low-wage jobs like working on railroads and in extremely dangerous mines.

This immediately began rhetoric of “Asians are stealing our jobs,” which set off a trend of violence that continues today.

Asian Culture is Diverse

To fully understand the issue of racism towards Asian Americans, it is important to understand that many different groups of people from very different cultures are referred to as Asian:

  • Asian American
  • Pacific Islanders
  • Desi
  • Asian Pacific Islander
  • AAPI to be more accurate and inclusive.

Early Years of Asian Immigration

During these early years, the California Supreme Court ruled that people of Asian descent could not testify against someone who was white, a ruling referred to historically as the People Vs. Hall. This essentially granted whites freedom to attack Asians with violence or commit other crimes for which they’d never be prosecuted.

The next few decades saw strings of horrific attacks against Asian Americans.

In 1871, the murder of a white man caught up in the crossfire between two rival Chinese groups led to a massacre. More than 500 people surrounded and attacked a small Chinese community, lynching at least 17 men and boys.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

The issues continued, and in 1882, Congress passed a law known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a ban on all immigration from China. It was supposed to last for 20 years before being repealed, finally after multiple extensions in 1943.

Another horrifying incident occurred in 1885 when 28 Asian mineworkers were surrounded and murdered, with 79 homes being burned down. Hundreds of mineworkers escaped but were tricked into getting onto a train that was supposed to take them to safety in San Francisco. Instead, it took them back to the mines, where they were held captive and forced to work under federal watch for the next 13 years.

The Early 1900s

In 1900, there was a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco, which had circumstances mirroring today’s coronavirus outbreak.

The outbreak was traced to a boat that came from Australia, but because the first stateside passenger was Asian, they were blamed as a whole for starting the pandemic. Immediately, their community was surrounded, and no one except white people was allowed to enter or leave. This type of profiling is still very alive.

In the 1940s, tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants and Japanese were legally residing in the United States. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were all forced into “intermittent camps” until the war was over for fear that they would “aid the enemy.”

The conditions of the camps were horrific, and when they returned home, many found that their homes and businesses had been vandalized or destroyed. No Japanese American spies were ever found. Over forty years later, those survivors who were still alive were offered an apology and $20,000.

The 1990s

This list of incidents goes on and includes many which have been forgotten or suppressed in texts and history lessons.

Korean immigrants were embroiled in racial tensions with neighboring black communities in Los Angeles during the 90s. When the Rodney King riots broke out, many Korean businesses were the target of racial attacks and vandalism.

Even the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to Asian discrimination since many people perceived those of South Asian descent to be Muslim.


Asian Americans struggle with substance use at rates very similar to the rest of the population.

The stereotype that they do not has been born out of myth largely, with some small actual truth. This likely stems from the discovery of something known as “flushing syndrome.”

  • Flushing syndrome is a genetic factor that is particular to people of Asian descent, particularly in certain subgroups.
  • Within nearly 50% of AAPI is a genome that prevents the normal metabolism of alcohol.
  • When this is present, the person will experience an adverse reaction to alcohol.
  • They may become flushed, nauseated, and feel ill.

This genetic difference mentioned above does lower than rates at which almost half of the Asian American population are at a lower risk for alcoholism.

But it doesn’t eliminate the risk, and studies have shown that even people with flushing syndrome become alcohol dependent.

This was once thought to protect Asians from Alcoholism and substance use and has even extended to the absurd stereotype that people of Asian descent do not experience mental health problems. This type of stigma prevents the problem from being acknowledged, let alone understood and addressed.

Addiction Stigma Within Asian Culture

Sadly, we’re discovering that Asian Americans struggle with addiction at even higher rates in some cases.

  • Methamphetamine dependence among Pacific Island populations is startlingly high, at around 10%.
  • Gambling and nicotine addiction are also extremely high in AAPI populations, and those born in America are three times more likely to use drugs than those who were born elsewhere.

Another reason Asian Americans have been forgotten when it comes to substance use is that rates for addiction are frequently measured by statistics gathered from treatment facilities.

Consequently, we only know that people are using drugs when they reach out to get help for it. Otherwise, they remain uncounted and anonymous. And for Asian Americans, many barriers prevent them from seeking and receiving treatment. Asian Americans are half as likely to enter treatment as non-Asian Americans.

To make matters worse, Asian American women are even less likely. But when they do make it to treatment, AAPI populations are just as likely to complete treatment and succeed.

So, why aren’t they getting help?

Barriers to Receiving Treatment

Cultural barriers represent a major reason. There’s no denying a difference in cultures between the “West and the East.”

For example:

  • Eastern cultures rely on holistic medicine and healthcare much more than Americans, who rapidly resort to pharmaceuticals and surgery.
  • Mental problems, which addiction is often considered, can be viewed as a sign of weakness.
  • Within family units, there’s a greater inclination to handle issues internally and not “lose face” by asking for help from an outside agency.

Addiction already comes with shame, and for AAPI, it’s often extreme. This causes those who struggle with addiction to isolate themselves and avoid seeking help.

Systemic Racism

Other major barriers include the same ones many minority groups in America face. Due to the history of systemic racism, Asian Americans are underrepresented and lack advocacy to help them get treatment.

Minority populations in America have greater rates of impoverishment and often cannot access assistance due to language barriers and other issues.

The lack of language services for Asian Americans prevents recent immigrants from doing things we take for granted, like getting a driver’s license or government assistance. They may not even know what services exist to help them, and if they make it to treatment, they may not find language services there.

All this adds up to fewer people getting help and the problem growing.


The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, particularly Asian Americans.

An online reporting forum called “Stop AAPI Hate” recorded:

  • 1,479 direct reports of discrimination against primarily Asian Americans between 18 and 15 April 2020.

This was during the beginning of the pandemic. Now, we’re at mass shootings, the most recent killing eight people in Atlanta.

An Increase in Substance Use

Asian Americans are experiencing tension, loss, and stress.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a difficult time for everyone, but adding heavy racism to it has made matters worse.

Substance use rates are already at an all-time high, according to recent data from the CDC.

  • Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 12 months.
  • Some states like North Carolina saw an increase in overdose deaths of over 29%.

It appears that the effect of the pandemic has been an increased rate of drug use and decreased rates of treatment. The combined stressors of life have increased for all.

But Asian Americans have been experiencing all of that on top of being blamed for the virus. And now they’re being targeted for murder. This has driven the issue of racism to the forefront. But knowing the problem, and solving it, are two different things.


To begin solving this problem, we need to stop the bleeding, both literally and figuratively. And the way to do that is to heal.

People need help, and right now, Asian Americans need it badly. They are suffering and in need of healing. Many of them are experiencing mental trauma and stress, so we can expect that they are turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.

But we know that the numbers may not reflect this, so we need to be proactive.

Access to medical and mental health services like detox and substance use treatment must be increased for Asian Americans.

And we need to stop assuming that they’re immune to things like addiction and don’t need help. They may not ask for it, but we need to check on our friends and offer them a hand.

Other actions that may be beneficial include stopping racist remarks when you hear them and not perpetuating stereotypes. Supporting Asian-American businesses during these hard times may make a big difference since discrimination and xenophobia have hit them very hard.

Educating people that there’s a problem is the first step. We cannot remain ignorant of the existence of racism and substance use among the Asian American community. Now, action must follow education by supporting the people around us who need it most.




More Information

Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.



More Information

Michael Leach is a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, who has over 5 years of experience working in the field of addiction. He spent his career working under the board-certified Addictionologist Dr. Rohit Adi. His experience includes working with families during their loved one’s stay in treatment, helping those with substance abuse issues find treatment, and teaching life skills to patients in a recovery atmosphere. Though he has worked in many different areas of rehabilitation, the majority of his time was spent working one on one with patients who were actively withdrawing from drugs. Withdrawal and the fear of going through it is one biggest reason why an addict continues to use and can be the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process. His experience in the withdrawal atmosphere has taught him that regardless of what approach a person takes to get off drugs, there are always mental and emotional obstacles that need to be overcome. He believes having someone there to help a person through these obstacles can make all the difference during the withdrawal process.