Addiction is a disease, and negative attitudes must change

December 12, 2011

Health professionals and society must change their negative attitudes toward addiction, which is a disease that requires treatment like other health conditions, states an editorial in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

Prejudice, misconceptions and negative attitudes about addiction and people who suffer from addiction are common and colour our approach to treatment.

"These prejudices lead us to view the behaviours of smokers, alcoholics and other substance users as moral and lifestyle choices, rather than to see them through the lens of disease biology," writes Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, Deputy Editor, CMAJ.

There is significant evidence that indicates that addiction is not a matter of choice but is a neurobiologic response that is affected by genetic, environmental and epidemiologic influences. Addictive substances can cause permanent anatomic and chemical changes in the brain.

"Addiction is a chronic relapsing disease that we must treat as we do other such diseases," writes Dr. Stanbrook.

However, informed debate about which kinds of treatment and policy approaches to addiction should be adopted must occur. "The role played in addiction, as in other diseases, by elements of choice and personal responsibility must also be acknowledged, provided we recognize how addiction itself impairs this role," states the author. "However, the debate must proceed based on scientific evidence and rational argument, not on myths or political ideology."

Health professionals play a key role in this discussion, but they need to change their attitudes toward people with addiction.

"This will be challenging -- perhaps as challenging as breaking free from addiction -- but only then can we truly deliver appropriate, supportive and professional care to all who struggle with this difficult and often life-destroying problem.

Canadian Medical Association Journal

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