The ABC trlevision network aired a primetime special on 4/21/03 that largely attacked the scientific basis that defines addiction treatment today. “Help me I can’t help myself” was hosted by veteran ABC correspondent John Stossel and the majority of experts utilized in the report believe that addiction is more likely a choice than a brain disease. They reject the latest science produced by the National Institutes of Health, which says addiction is characterized by chemical and biological changes in the brain that inhibit an individual’s ability to NOT use alcohol or other drugs.
The show also featured an individual with a substance use disorder who had a poor personal experience in clinical treatment and eventually stopped using drugs on his own. No individuals who successfully completed treatment or found clinical treatment to be an important part of their recovery process were included in the report.
Several national organizations, including the National Association of Addiction Treatment Professionals and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, issued press releases criticizing the report for its inaccuracies and lack of balance.
Numerous NAADAC members also expressed their concern about the program to the national office and in response the below letter was sent to Stossel on 5/1/03. The overwhelming response by NAADAC members to the letter has been positive, although a small minority of counselors say they agree with the program. As always, NAADAC respects the diversity of opinions that exist among its 13,000 members. The chief aim of the letter was to encourage Stossel and ABC to “deliver accurate and complete information” to its audience.
You can read a transcript of the program by visiting this page on the ABC News website: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/Living/stossel_addiction030421.html. 5/1/03
147 Columbus Ave.
New York, NY 10023
Dear Mr. Stossel,
On behalf of NAADAC, the Association of Addiction Professionals, I am writing in response to the ABC television special “Help Me, I Can’t Help Myself”, which you hosted on Monday 4/21/03.
NAADAC is the largest national membership organization for addiction focused health care professionals with over 13,000 members. Founded in 1972, NAADAC is dedicated to enhancing the professional growth and development of individuals who treat and help prevent addiction. We are also ardent advocates for our patients and clients.
Your report causes our association concern for several reasons.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ABUSE AND ADDICTION
The show’s recurrent theme that “addicts” can simply quit if they so choose is based on a failure to accurately distinguish substance use or substance abuse from addiction. Alcoholism and drunkenness are not the same thing. The brain scans mentioned by Dr. Stephen Dewey in your report reveal chemical and biological differences between those who are addicted and those who use or abuse substances. Science has demonstrated that the brains and bodies of some individuals react differently to substance use and, as a result, their ability to quit is inhibited. Addiction is a real and complex disease.
Rather than challenging the disease model of addiction by pointing to individuals who have, on their own, successfully quit using alcohol or other drugs, you should focus instead on the scientific mystery of why some individuals become dependent on alcohol or other drugs and some do not.
The need for additional scientific knowledge about the biological basis of addiction is tremendous, as is the need for increased treatment spending. The annual social cost of alcohol and other drug disorders to America is over $300 billion. That includes lost productivity, health care expenditures, and criminal justice costs. Given our nation’s fiscal debt and the comparitively small $100 billion that America expects to spend on the war with Iraq, more attention should be given to alcohol and drug disorders. Their collective social cost deserves greater attention in public and policy discussions.
ON STIGMA AND ADDICTION
The most negative and ill-informed comments in your report came from Dr. Sally Satel, who believes that the stigmatization of addiction is a good thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stigma prevents many individuals from seeking the help they need. Stigma yields unequal and inadequate insurance benefits for the assessment and treatment of addiction. Stigma also gives rise to public policy that prevents individuals in recovery from obtaining social services-including housing, education and welfare assisstance- that are neccessary for many to return to a fully functioning life.
( Dr. Satel’s nonsensical statement that divorces brain functioning from human behavior further erodes her credibility as an addiction expert. “You can look at brains all day,” she said. “They can be lit up like christmas trees. But unless a person behaves in a certain way, we wouldn’t call them an addict.” This statement belies scientific understanding. I hope you will utilize better-qualified experts in future reports.)
ON INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY AND ADDICTION
Your use of the words “excuse” and “helpless” in the segment on “Uncontrollable Impulses?” implies that individuals skirt responsibility for their behavior by casting blame on the disease of addiction. While some individuals will inevitably point fingers at others or circumstances beyond their control, recognition of personal responsibility and behavioral change are major components of any credible treatment program.
In closing, I want to thank you for taking the time to explore addiction issues in a primetime special on broadcast television. As you know, alcohol and drug use are major medical and social problems in America. More media coverage is needed on the scope of the problemand its potential solutions. My aim is to bring to your attention a number of facts that are paramount to addiction professionals.
Representing the nation’s frontline addiction counselors, NAADAC is here to assist you in any way possible to deliver accurate and complete information to the viewing public. I encourage you to call on us as the need arises in your future work.
Roger A. Curtis, NCAC II, LAC