Hardly a day goes by without a report in the press about some new addiction. There are warnings about addiction to coffee. Popular psychology publications talk of “extreme sports addiction.” Some news reports even alert us to the perils of chocolate addiction. One gets the impression that life is awash in threats of addiction. People tend to equate the word “addiction” with “abuse.” Ironically, “addiction” is a subject of abuse.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry…characterized by the inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving” that continues despite resulting destruction of relationships, economic conditions, and health. A major feature is compulsiveness. Addiction has a biopsychosocial basis with a genetic predisposition and involves neurotransmitters and interactions within reward centers of the brain. This compusliveness is why alcoholics or other drug addicts will return to their substance of abuse even after they have been “detoxed” and despite the fact that they know it will further damage their lives.
Addiction is not the same as dependence. Yet politicians and many in the media use the two words interchangeably. Physical dependence represents an adaptation to the drug such that abrupt cessation or tapering off too rapidly can precipitate a withdrawal syndrome, which in some cases can be life-threatening. Physical dependence is seen with many categories of drugs besides drugs commonly abused. It is seen for example with many antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), and with beta blockers like atenolol and propranolol, used to treat a variety of conditions including hypertension and migraines. Once a patient is properly tapered off of the drug on which they have become physically dependent, they do not feel a craving or compulsion to return to the drug.
Some also confuse tolerance with addiction. Similar to dependency, tolerance is another example of physical adaptation. Tolerance refers to the decrease in one or more effects a drug has on a person after repeated exposure, requiring increases in the dose.
Science journalist Maia Szalavitz, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, ably details how journalists perpetuate this lack of understanding and fuel misguided opioid policies.
Many in the media share responsibility for the mistaken belief that prescription opioids rapidly and readily addict patients—despite the fact that Drs. Nora Volkow and Thomas McLellan of the National Institute on Drug Abuse point out addiction is very uncommon, “even among those with preexisting vulnerabilities.” Cochrane systematic studies in 2010 and 2012 of chronic pain patients found addiction rates in the 1 percent range, and a report on over 568,000 patients in the Aetna database who were prescribed opioids for acute postoperative pain between 2008 and 2016 found a total “misuse” rate of 0.6 percent.
Equating dependency with addiction caused lawmakers to impose opioid prescription limits that are not evidence-based, and is making patients suffer needlessly after being tapered too abruptly or cut off entirely from their pain medicine. Many, in desperation, seek relief in the black market where they get exposed to heroin and fentanyl. Some resort to suicide. There have been enough reports of suicides that the US Senate is poised to vote on opioid legislation that “would require HHS and the Department of Justice to conduct a study on the effect that federal and state opioid prescribing limits have had on patients — and specifically whether such limits are associated with higher suicide rate.” And complaints about the lack of evidence behind present prescribing policy led Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to announce plans last month for the FDA to develop its own set of evidence-based guidelines.
Now there is talk in media and political circles about the threats of “social media addiction.” But there is not enough evidence to conclude that spending extreme amounts of time on the internet and with social media is an addictive disorder. One of the leading researchers on the subject stresses that most reports on the phenomenon are anecdotal and peer-reviewed scientific research is scarce. A recent Pew study found the majority of social media users would not find it difficult to give it up. The American Psychiatric Association does not consider social media addiction or “internet addiction” a disorder and does not include it in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considering it an area that requires further research.
This doesn’t stop pundits from warning us about the dangers of social media addiction. Some warnings might be politically motivated. Recent reports suggest Congress might soon get into the act. If that happens, it can threaten freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It can also generate biliions of dollars in government spending on social media addiction treatment.
Before people see more of their rights infringed or are otherwise harmed by unintended consequences, it would do us all a great deal of good to be more accurate and precise in our terminology. It would also help if lawmakers learned more about the matters on which they create policy.