January 13, 2015
I follow IFL Science on Facebook and usually love the stuff they post. However, last night while scanning my feed, I was shocked to read this completely unscientific article on their page. In it, the author makes the following assertations:
Addiction is rare. (I wouldn't call 23.5 million addicted people in the U.S. alone "rare."1)
Most people will either pass unscathed through a short period of experimentation or learn to accommodate their drug use into their lifestyle. (even if this is true, is it beneficial? Does anyone look back on all the cocaine they did in college and feel proud?)
If you are intelligent, have good job prospects, and a loving family you should be able to manage your drug use without becoming addicted. (this irresponsible *speculation*, not science, sounds like a suggestion that whoever fits that category can use addictive substances as they please because they are somehow immune to dependency.)
What causes addiction is less to do with the power of the drug and more to do with your socioeconomic background. (Yes, because only lab rats raised by single mothers in the ghetto get addicted..)
IFL Science says you probably won't get addicted if you are rich and have good parents...
Addiction is a condition of the brain. It's a physical response to exposure to addictive substances. According to Avram Goldstein, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology at Standford University, "a rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin on it's brain."
Humans are more complicated than rats and yes, circumstances can have a big impact on rates of addiction. However, scientists estimate that genetic and biological factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction. 2 Even if a person comes from a good background, there is still the roughly 50 percent influence of something as complicated as genetics determining wether they might get addicted after experimenting with drugs. This author makes it sound like your upbringing and socioeconomic status takes the vast majority of blame when the data actually shows it to be about a 50/50 combination of genes and circumstance. What about the hundreds of thousands of people addicted to prescripton drugs after following doctor's orders? A good portion of those people are not uneducated, low-income, or criminal. Circumstances can put you more at risk for being exposed to addictive substances, and make you more likely to try them, but if you carry the genetic marker for addiction, or other mental illnesses, it doesn't matter where you live, how much money you have, or how loving your family is, you are at a high risk.
The article does make a valid point at the very end when it points out that addiction is frequently the result of social stress, not the cause of it, and that lawmakers would be more effective tackling the socioeconomic factors that make people more vulnerable to addiction rather than tossing people in jail after the fact. I'm totally on-board with that concept, but what an irresponsible and round-about way to make that point.
IFL you really dropped the ball here.
1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) National Survey on Drug Use and Health
2. National Institute on Drug Abuse:
Author: Ginny Atwood
October 9, 2014
Response to the Washington Post
Some of you may have seen this insensitive and pointless article posted on the Washington Post today: Hardly anyone uses heroin. So why do we keep freaking out about it?
I just want to bang my head against a wall.
The author is suggesting that because the percentage of heroin users in the US is small compared to the total population, we need to stop worrying so much about all the people who are dying. Another small percentage is the number of people sick with Ebola, abducted by terrorists, or living with AIDS. This doesn’t make those individuals any less worthy of our help. I don’t see any Washington Post articles with titles like “Pipe down about Ebola!” or “Who cares about terrorism?” That’s because the force of all the incoming threats and rage-filled responses from their readers would give them whiplash. So why write it about the heroin problem?
The fact is, even if the number of heroin users is comparatively small, it’s on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths from heroin overdose doubled in just two years in much of the nation. And a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that the number of heroin users in the U.S. jumped almost 80% from 2007-2012. I would say that a rapid upward turn like that is legitimate cause for concern even if the numbers themselves aren’t huge.
Every major epidemic has started somewhere and leaders have always looked back and said “why didn’t we do more before it was too late?” At the beginning of the AIDS crisis a very small percentage of Americans were sick. No one started “freaking out” until more people began contracting HIV, including a few celebrities, and then the problem finally started getting the attention it deserved. At that point though, the spread was harder to contain and 636,000 Americans have died. Maybe if everyone had “freaked out” a little sooner a lot of lives could have been spared.
I’m really not sure what the author hopes to accomplish with this article, or what he even means by “freaking out.” I’m not freaking out, I’m taking action. When my brother died of a heroin overdose at the age of 21 last year, my family started the Chris Atwood Foundation and is fighting to save lives, not running around screaming and flapping our hands as the author’s derisive term “freaking out” would suggest. On September 28th this year at the FED UP! Rally in Washington, DC a thousand people who have lost loved ones to opioid death gathered on the national mall to ask for increased federal action on the opioid epidemic. Is that freaking out? If he intends to encourage us to get out there and do something instead of just freaking out, then bravo, but somehow I doubt that.
Since the author is so hung up on relative percentages, let’s look at some. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that even though there are 23.5 MILLION AMERICANS in need of treatment for addiction, only 11 percent of them get treatment at a specialty facility. In other words, 89% of Americans in need of specialized addiction treatment don’t receive it. So instead of telling us all to pipe down and worry less, maybe he should have spoken out about the atrocious lack of affordable, accessible treatment for those “relatively few” people addicted to heroin. That might actually do some good instead of just riling people up to sell a few papers.
It comes down to this. We need to care more in this world, not less. For me it’s not about the numbers. It’s about families destroyed and lives we will never get back. The author repeatedly states how small the percentage of heroin users is as if that makes them unimportant. Look into the faces of the people who will never see their beautiful son or daughter again and tell them their child’s death was a drop in the bucket. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about people. Isn’t trying to prevent just ONE family from losing a child a much better use of time than writing an article implying we should care less about fellow Americans that are dying?
By Ginny Atwood