UPDATE 12:46 p.m. A half-century ago, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General – the country’s top doctor – issued a report on tobacco that started a cultural shift in a Mad Men-era America where cigarettes were ubiquitous to one today where they are shunned and forever connected to lung cancer.
Now that office under U.S. Surgeon Vice Admiral Dr. Vivek H. Murthy hopes to inspire a similar sea change with its first ever report on addiction. It aims to remove the public stigma of the disease by defining once and for all as a neurological brain disorder that needs to be treated as any other chronic condition.
“My hope with this report is that it will galvanize our country to address the addiction crisis,” Murthy said in a press availability today.
Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health, comes the same day as the online release of The Palm Beach Post’s investigation, Heroin: Killer of A Generation, which outlines the scope of an epidemic that killed 216 people from overdose in the county in 2015.
Much of his findings have been accepted in the recovery community for years, even decades. But Murthy wants the public to understand that addiction is a disease, not one of simple self-control.
Murthy said he aims to change the way America views addiction. “I’m calling out country to action,” he said. “I’m calling for a cultural shift in how we think about addiction, that we recognize that it is not a moral failing.”
He said, in fact, addiction is neurological disorder of the brain and “is not a disease of choice.”
The report states the pressing need for an overhaul in the way the country thinks about addiction, stating that almost 22.5 million people reported using an illegal drug in the last year, 20 million have substance abuse issues and 12.5 million abuse prescription pain pills.
Every day, 78 people die in the U.S. from heroin or heroin-related drugs.
Among other findings is that only 10 percent of those now addicted receive treatment and that the economic impact of drug and alcohol misuse and addiction amounts to $442 billion each year.
One in seven Americans will struggle with some type of alcohol or drug addiction, the report states.
What is needed is a multi-pronged approach of medication, counseling and social support, along with evidence-based interventions to prevent addiction in the first place, according to the report.
Murtha will talk about addiction with other experts at an event later today in Los Angeles.
Without being implicit, the report offers an alternative to incarceration for those suffering from addiction and hails a system of recovery support services – or RSS – to keep recovered addicts from relapsing. The most-well known RSS, the report points out, is Alcoholics Anonymous but there are many resources.
The report also endorses needle-exchange programs and other solutions, including medication to wean addicts off of heroin.
For those on the front-lines battling addiction in Palm Beach County, the report was like the bugle call of the cavalry arriving.
James N. Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University, has been watching heroin’s march through the community for five years.
“This is a landmark report from the Surgeon General of the United States,” he said. “It is an open call for key policy shifts making this a No. 1 public health issue rather than a moral or criminal issue.”
He called on political leaders to “tackle this age-old problem that is more dangerous, more addictive and more deadly in 2016 than any other time in our lives.”
Dr. Anthony Campo is the Medical Director at Caron Renaissance and Ocean Drive. He said the report was “ground-breaking” and “long overdue.”
He thinks the de-stigmatizing of addiction and making treatment more available will go a long way in dealing with the crisis.
“When you look at the figures, overdoses takes a life every 19 minutes,” Campo said. “Criminalizing substance abuse disorders didn’t work. It has to be treatment.”
How Murthy’s report — particularly his call to “invest more” in treatment and prevention – goes over with President-Elect Donald Trump is unknown.
Trump, though, knows the ravages of addiction. His brother Freddy, died as an alcoholic in 1981 at the age of 43. As a result, Trump doesn’t drink.
“How we respond to this crisis is a moral test for America,” Murthy said. “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?”