Addiction is a chronic illness, not a character flaw

The last time a US Surgeon General released a report as potent as last week’s, it was in 1967 and it affected millions.

In it, the last word – or empirical evidence, as climate change denier Malcolm Roberts would deem it – was given on smoking. It was decreed there was an irrefutable link between smoking, lung cancer and other deadly ailments. Finally, the world sat up and noticed and, more importantly, acted. Opinions were irrevocably altered and habits were dropped. Shut the debate gate.

And while I would like to believe that this latest report will be a similarly defining medical moment, I am sceptical.

Because this time the Surgeon General's finding does not just involve changing habits and attitudes but deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes.

The report, Facing Addiction, is replete with stats that are startling and scary but hardly new. One in seven Americans will experience a problem with alcohol or other drugs in their lifetimes, and some 20 million have current substance use disorders. An average 78 people are dying from overdoses every day, yet only 10 per cent of people with addictions ever receive any sort of help.

But here is the clanger I hope will resonate: "For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes. "We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness."

It would be too easy to respond with a united "duh!". The problem is convincing the public of Murthy's conclusion. Yes, this means no more "it's no fault but their own" or "why help someone who won't help themself?" and "they're just weak" attitudes so entrenched in society.

It will also mean an acknowledgement that the war on drugs is a complete and utter farce – and an expensive, counter-productive and life-ruining exercise in madness.

Australians are world leaders in drug use. More than 40 per cent of us have used drugs illicitly and we have one of the highest rates of illegal use per capita, despite also having some of the most expensive prices.

And with the current epidemics of prescription drug abuse and ice, "it couldn't happen here" complacency is unwarranted.

Murthy toured the country interviewing Americans as part of his report and discovered a core problem: many who feared addiction were afraid of losing their jobs and friends should their issue be revealed.

Many also claimed to be concerned that if they reached out to doctors or sought mental heath experts that their problem may be reported or doctors may not treat their issue seriously. 

Here, experts on the frontline say the problem is the same. Shame and stigma are stopping those in need of help from accessing it. Murthy contends the logical next step is integrating substance addiction treatment into mainstream healthcare. 

Who believes when they have their first sip of wine they will become an alcoholic? Is it really a case of shame them for having a different chemical make-up to us?  Is it actually their fault for trying it in the first place? Of course it isn't. Let's hope that the US Surgeon General's report will arrest such foolishness. And that those of us opening our evening bottle of wine, popping another Valium, or enjoying a cigarette will stop feeling superior and realise the term "addict" is not confined to those who use needles or a glass pipe.

That it's time to legalise, regulate and, most of all, respect.

Hard habit: Australians are world leaders in drug use. More than 40 per cent of us have used drugs illicitly and we have one of the highest rates of illegal use per capita.

Hard habit: Australians are world leaders in drug use. More than 40 per cent of us have used drugs illicitly and we have one of the highest rates of illegal use per capita.

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