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Surgeon general issues call to action on addiction

Ben Schmitt
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Vivek Murthy is the U.S. Surgeon General.

Substance abuse disorders affected 21 million Americans last year, nearly equaling the number of people suffering from diabetes, according to a report on addiction released Thursday by the U.S. surgeon general.

The annual economic impact of drug abuse is estimated at $193 billion, and the estimated economic impact of alcohol abuse is $249 billion, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in the report.

“Yet, at the same time, few other medical conditions are surrounded by as much shame and misunderstanding as substance use disorders,” he wrote. “Historically, our society has treated addiction and misuse of alcohol and drugs as symptoms of moral weakness or as a willful rejection of societal norms, and these problems have been addressed primarily through the criminal justice system.”

Only about 10 percent of people with a substance use disorder receive specialty treatment, the report stated. More than 40 percent of people who abused alcohol or drugs also have mental illness issues, yet less than half receive treatment for either condition, Murthy said.

Dr. Antoine Douaihy, academic senior medical director of addiction medicine services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, said he views the report as a wake-up call to the health care industry.

“We’ve been talking about this for years, but there is still a lot of misbelief out there that substance abuse and addiction is a moral failure,” he said. “It must be thought of as a public health problem that needs more and more work before it destroys every aspect of our society.”

In 2015, according to the report, more than 27 million people reported misusing legal prescription drugs or using illegal ones.

More than 66 million people reported they had taken part in binge drinking in the previous month. The report defined binge drinking as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages, for men, on the same occasion and four or more drinks for women.

“For far too long, people have seen addiction as a disease of choice,” Murthy said.

Besides changing public perception of addicts, Murthy said general screenings for addiction need to occur more often during routine doctor’s visits and be integrated into general health care treatment.

Douaihy agreed.

“Just like treating someone with diabetes or hypertension, you don’t wait until it’s a full-blown medical problem to administer treatment,” he said. “It’s very important to incorporate more of addiction services and intervention into general health care settings to boost prevention and early intervention.”

With the opioid crisis receiving the bulk of national attention, Dr. Jack Kabazie, director of Allegheny Health Network’s division of pain medicine, was pleased the surgeon general addressed alcohol issues.

“We tend to forget about alcohol because it’s socially acceptable, and we see it in print ads, billboards and on TV,” Kabazie said. “Narcotics kill quickly, while problems from alcohol may take years and are very insidious.”

He said the statistics alone in the report, titled “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health,” should be a “call to arms.”

“It’s been a long time coming, and I agree with everything he said,” Kabazie said. “We are not doing enough.”

The good news, Douaihy said, is that recovery is easily attainable with the proper treatment and access to services.

“Substance abuse disorders are very treatable,” he said. “People can get better with the right treatment, especially if they receive help early on.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or [email protected].

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