Addiction: The Surgeon General’s Plan to Tackle America’s Drug Epidemic

A woman, possibly fighting addiction, slumped over in front of a club

A woman, possibly fighting addiction, slumped over in front of a club | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

America is in the throes of an addiction epidemic. While it’s true that people have always struggled with addiction, and in large numbers, the issue has rarely gotten as much attention as it has recently. In recent years, prescription drug use has led to serious addiction issues for millions. Numerous factors have driven people to drug use, but it’s a complicated set of variables that keep the cycle in perpetual motion.

These days, it’s prescription pills. In years past, it was tobacco, or alcohol — even gambling. Though the details change, addiction has long been a serious health issue in the United States. We just haven’t been very good at addressing it.

Perhaps it’s time to reframe the issue? That’s exactly what Obama’s Surgeon General Vivek Murthy  is trying to do. He recently released a new report in which he takes the way we think about, and handle addiction, to task. “How we respond to this crisis is a moral test for America,” Murthy writes in the report’s preface. “Are we a nation willing to take on an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss? Are we able to live up to that most fundamental obligation we have as human beings: to care for one another?”

The report, called Facing Addiction in America, is the first of its kind to not only dig into the problem of addiction, but also look at possible solutions.

Surgeon General: Addiction is a brain disease

Vivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon general, left, speaks while participating in a roundtable discussion along with President Obama

Vivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon general, left, speaks while participating in a roundtable discussion | Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

One major way in which this report breaks new ground is by its definition of what addiction actually is. According to the report, “Addiction is a chronic brain disease that has the potential for both recurrence (relapse) and recovery.” Brain disease is the operative term here, and is a different way of framing the issue than we’re used to. It’s easy to think of addiction as a behavior defect of some kind. Or a compulsion that can’t be controlled. But the problem runs much deeper and is one of the primary reasons why so many people end up losing everything. Even their lives.

You should definitely go through the report yourself for the complete picture (fair warning, it’s several hundred pages long). But the main takeaway here is the government is looking at addiction in a different light. Along with rehashed terminology, there are also some new ideas for a solution.

“For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing. This unfortunate stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help,” Murthy writes. “It has also made it more challenging to marshal the necessary investments in prevention and treatment. We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw — it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

Tackling the problem

Glass prescription bottle with pills

Glass prescription bottle with pills | iStock.com/Jeng_Niamwhan

Murthy wants to divert more resources into two channels: prevention and treatment. This, of course, is open to all kinds of interpretation. But for a long time, America has taken a more punitive stance toward addicts than anything; Punishing them for their behavior rather than investing better ways to treat the problem.

This is likely rooted in the idea that we shouldn’t be spending public money to help people who, through their own actions and decisions, engage in self-destructive behavior. It’s this type of framing that we need to cast aside, though, if we hope to make any progress. By avoiding or putting off investments in promising prevention and treatment options, we’re simply kicking the can down the road. Addicts who truly want to get better will continue to struggle, and be forced to deal with the stigma of their disease.

That’s not to say there are easy answers here. There aren’t. But Murthy’s report is definitely a big step. “Fifty years ago, the landmark Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking began a half century of work to end the tobacco epidemic and saved millions of lives. With The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, I am issuing a new call to action to end the public health crisis of addiction,” Murthy writes.

The question is, with an incoming Trump administration, will Murthy’s framing of the issue prevail? Will we be able to make some headway in fighting addiction? Or will we revert back to old ways of thinking? Time will tell.

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