November 17, 2016
3 min read

Surgeon General calls for an end to addiction stigma, increased treatment access

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The Surgeon General today released a report addressing addiction in America, the neurobiology behind addiction, prevention, treatment, health care integration and recommendations for the future.

“In this report, we call the country’s attention to the fact that substance use disorders are, in fact, one of our most underappreciated and under-addressed public health crises,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, said during a webcast discussing the release of the first-ever Surgeon General Report on Addiction. “We have 20.8 million people in America with a substance use disorder, which is similar to the number of people who have diabetes and is 1.5 times the number of people who have all cancers combined. But only 1 in 10 people with substance use disorders actually gets treatment. I want you to imagine how our country would react if only 1 in 10 people with cancer could actually get treatment; if only 1 in 10 people with diabetes could access treatment. We wouldn’t tolerate that and we shouldn’t tolerate it for substance use either.”

Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA
Vivek Murthy

Substance use disorders typically develop over time following repeated misuse that changes brain circuitry, according to the report.

Further, individuals who use alcohol before age 15 years are 4 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder later in life, compared with those who use alcohol for the first time at age 20 years or older.

Because of this, the report states that substance misuse is an underappreciated and critical public health challenge that can lead to substance use disorders and addiction.

“I call on our country to ensure that everyone who needs access to treatment has it and to make sure we are embedding prevention programs in all of our communities so that we can protect our kids, in particular,” Murthy said. “We know that adolescents are particularly at risk for developing substance use disorders. Their brains are still developing and if you begin using alcohol at or before the age of 15, your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder is 4 times greater than if you start at the age of 21 or later. There is also a marked risk of developing addiction to illicit substances when you start during adolescence as well. So, we have to focus our prevention efforts particularly on our kids.”

The report indicates a division between substance use disorder treatment and the rest of health care services in the United States.

Although the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and the Affordable Care Act have increased access to substance use disorder and addiction services, a treatment gap remains.

This gap can be attributed to stigma, lack of screening, fear of shame and discrimination associated with substance use disorders, limited access, costs of care, and fragmented services within the U.S. health care system, according to the report.

Sylvia Burwell
Sylvia M. Burwell

“Families across this country are fighting addiction — they’re fighting an illness, as well as a stigma. They’re doing all they can, and we should do no less. At [HHS], we have worked hard to make our nation healthier and save lives by increasing access to evidence-based treatment for those who need it,” HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell, said in a press release. “While there’s more to do, this historic report provides us guidance and outlines important steps we can take to move forward, build on our progress to address this public health crisis, and make a difference for more Americans.”

To improve this public health problem, the Surgeon General report recommends eradicating negative attitudes regarding substance use disorders and changing the way individuals think about them, early intervention and increased treatment access.

“It’s time to change how we view addiction,” Murthy said in the release. “Not as a moral failing but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion. The way we address this crisis is a test for America.”

The report commended the Obama Administration and HHS for its efforts towards improving addiction, which includes investments in research, development and evaluation of prevention and treatment programs for substance use disorders.

“We’re here to talk about addiction, but the truth is this is about more than addiction,” Murthy said. “This is about the kind of country we want to create for ourselves and for our children. A country where people can live with dignity and respect, regardless of their life experience and background. A country where people who need help can get it. That’s the kind of country I want for us and for our future generations.” – by Amanda Oldt

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For the full report visit: