In one of his last acts as the US Surgeon General under President Barack Obama’s administration, Vivek Murthy released a landmark report on Thursday, calling the current drug epidemic “a moral test for America.” In the report, Murthy places drug and alcohol addiction on par with smoking, AIDS and other health crises over the last 50 years.
Murthy said, “The reason I’m issuing this report is I want to call our country to action around what has become a pressing public health issue.” He added,
I want our country to understand the magnitude of this crisis. I’m not sure everyone does.
The report, titled “Facing Addiction,” gathers all the latest data on the effects of drug and alcohol abuse on public health, along with issues on treatment and prevention. It presents reasons for Americans to remain optimistic, despite the growing numbers in overdoses and deaths – substance addiction has killed over 500,000 people in the USA since 2000. The report also provides evidence that addiction is a brain disease, and is treatable using therapies currently under development, the Washington Post reports.
In 2015, drug and alcohol addiction affected 20.8 million Americans – the same number as people with diabetes and 150% of those with cancer. But only one in 10 people gets proper treatment. Murthy said, “We would never tolerate a situation where only one in 10 people with cancer or diabetes gets treatment, and yet we do that with substance-abuse disorders.”
In the same year, over 27 million people reported having used illegal drugs, or have abused prescription drugs. More than 66 million people reported binge drinking in the previous month.
Surgeon General reports have been issued since 1964, releasing information on HIV and AIDS, tobacco, mental health, suicide prevention and other national concerns. “Surgeon general’s reports are issued carefully, and they’re done when the country needs to be called to action on an issue,” Murthy said, adding that there is the need to highlight concerns on addiction.
One part of the report centers on the neurobiology of addiction, and how it makes it difficult for users to kick the habit. It describes how it’s easier for teenagers to get addicted, and how substance abuse can stunt brain development.
The report adds that modern therapies are effective, even if relapse rates are the same as those in people suffering from chronic diseases. It can take up to a year of abstinence before an addict goes into remission, and four to five years before the chances of a recovering addict relapsing drops to below 15%.
Murthy emphasizes that addiction is a brain condition and not a moral failing, despite staunchly-held public beliefs. The report partly seeks to change attitudes regarding addiction and ease the stigma that users endure. Murthy said, “Unless we eradicate the negative [stereotypes]…we won’t create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help.”