Addiction is a brain disease characterized by an inability to stop the use of alcohol or an addictive substance, despite the negative consequences associated with its use; it is a chronic and progressive disease that centers in the mind and body, rather than a simple lack of willpower. In a medical sense, addiction is a long-term brain disease and has nothing to do with someone’s character.
This is best illustrated by observing both the current opioid and alcohol use epidemics in the United States. According to the CDC, “around 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid”. In addition, according to the NIH, 88,000 Americans died of alcohol related deaths in 2017. These numbers are six times higher when compared to numbers from 1999 and the numbers continue to rise yearly. It is a growing problem.
It’s not that people want to die. The fact of the matter is that people have nowhere to turn.
Many people who have never exhibited addictive tendencies before their use of doctor-prescribed painkillers become addicted to these highly-available, extremely potent opioid medications after suffering incidents such as surgeries, car accidents, and falls. This begins the vicious cycle of addiction and mental illness. Once a person discovers that they can no longer fill their legitimate opioid prescription, they often turn to illicit marketplaces to feed their newfound addiction. Prescription opioids, heroin, and strong synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl) continue to eat away at the fabric of public conscience concerning drug addiction, which seems to be both (paradoxically) a blessing and a curse. It is a curse due to the number of preventable deaths, yet it may be a blessing if this epidemic finally brings drug addiction to the forefront of public health policy.
The issue is so widespread that it has become a problem for the majority of Americans in every suburb of the United States, not just the wrongly stereotyped addict living on the streets. Chances are high that if you’re not affected, you know someone that is. It’s a problem that has become hard to ignore. Nearly 140 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose (illicit or prescribed) and nearly 188 Americans die every day from alcohol related deaths. It’s a problem that has garnered equal amounts infamy and concern without dealing with the core issue.
The rise in “deaths of despair” – fatalities that are characterized by drug and alcohol poisoning, alcoholic cirrhosis, liver disease, and suicide – run concurrent with the rising rates of alcoholism and drug addiction. The idea that alcohol use is safer than drug use is a common misconception; the morbidity of alcoholic addiction does just as much (and more) harm in terms of all-cause mortality towards susceptible populations afflicted with substance use disorders. The United States is experiencing a rise in these types of deaths in every state across the country.
Programmatic aims need to be set high, as everyone seems to be affected by this new epidemic. Teaching safe prescribing practices to physicians, limiting the amount of opioid prescriptions, and ending The War on Drugs would only be the tip of the iceberg. Effective medical treatments for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder need to be as pervasive as the drugs themselves. An overhaul on how humanity views substance use disorder, the users of these drugs, and even the drugs themselves needs to occur in order to make this change possible.