Health Care Neglects 40 Million US Addicts

By May Wilkerson 06/26/12

A major new study reveals that 16% of US adults suffer from addiction, but only 10% ever receive treatment.

Most addicts in the US never get treated.
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Despite impacting millions of Americans, addiction receives a relatively measly amount of medical attention in the US, says a report released today by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA Columbia). A staggering 16% of Americans ages 12 and older are addicted to nicotine, alcohol or drugs, the five-year national study reveals—that's more of us than suffer from diabetes, heart disease or cancer. But despite 40 million people in the US suffering from addiction, only 10% of addicts reportedly receive any treatment at all, compared to 70% of people with illnesses like diabetes or major depression. And those addicts who do seek treatment often receive inadequate care. Most of the people who treat addictions aren't medical professionals, and they're often under-equipped to provide evidence-based treatment. The findings also show that spending on treating addiction is disproportionately low: in 2010, addiction treatment received only a third of the amount spent on cancer—even though addiction impacted twice as many people. This is probably due largely to society's failure to understand addiction as a disease, says Drew Altman, PhD, chair of the report’s National Advisory Commission. He argues, “This report shows that misperceptions about the disease of addiction are undermining medical care."

In addition to the 40 million people in the US said to qualify as addicts, the study finds that another 80 million Americans (32% of adults and teens), use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in ways that threaten their health and safety. Addiction and "risky use" of tobacco, alcohol and drugs cause over 20% of deaths in the US and are responsible for one third of all hospital in-patient costs—making substance abuse the costliest health problem in the US. It's also the most preventable; research suggests that improving prevention and treatment options could significantly reduce overall health care system costs. “As our nation struggles to reduce skyrocketing health care costs," says Altman, "this report makes clear that there are few targets for cost savings that are as straightforward as preventing and treating risky substance use and addiction”.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.