Surgeon General Issues ‘Landmark Report’ on Addiction

By Pat Anson, Editor

Calling addiction “America’s most pressing problem,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has released a landmark report on alcohol, drug abuse and substance use disorders. Nearly 21 million Americans are believed to suffer from some form of substance addiction.

“Alcohol and drug addiction take an enormous toll on individuals, families, and communities,” said Murthy. “Most Americans know someone who has been touched by an alcohol or a drug use disorder. Yet 90 percent of people with a substance use disorder are not getting treatment. That has to change.”

The voluminous report, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, takes an in-depth look at the abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription drugs.  Murthy called for a cultural shift in the way Americans view addiction.

SURGEON GENERAL VIVEK MURTHY, MD

SURGEON GENERAL VIVEK MURTHY, MD

"For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing," Murthy said. "This unfortunate stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance-use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.

"We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw. It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer."

Murthy was blasted by one critic for releasing the report in the final weeks of the Obama administration.

“The timing of Murthy’s report is despicable,” wrote Dr. Manny Alvarez, the senior managing health editor at Fox News. “For two years, he did nothing to develop national protocols to tackle opioid abuse and waited until a Republican was elected president to issue the first-ever report from a U.S. surgeon general dedicated to substance addiction. He could have used this platform to shape his legacy as surgeon general, but instead, it appears he chose to play politics while using our nation’s health as a pawn."

Murthy did send a letter to over 2 million physicians in August, encouraging them to follow CDC guidelines and not prescribe opioids as a first-line treatment for chronic pain.

The report released today, however, makes surprisingly few references to opioid prescribing or to the soaring number overdoses caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl. At times, the report acknowledges that efforts to reduce opioid prescribing may only be making the nation's opioid problem worse.

“Although only about 4 percent of those who misuse prescription opioids transition to using heroin, concern is growing that tightening restrictions on opioid prescribing could potentially have unintended consequences resulting in new populations using heroin,” the report states. “As yet, insufficient evidence exists of the effects of state policies to reduce inappropriate prescribing of opioid pain medications.”

As Pain News Network has reported, fentanyl overdoses have been escalating rapidly. In Massachusetts, nearly three out of four opioid overdoses this year have been linked to fentanyl, far outnumbering the number of deaths associated with prescription pain medication.

One of the findings of the Surgeon General’s report is that addiction treatment in the United States remains largely separate from the rest of health care and serves only a fraction of those in need of treatment. This “treatment gap” is attributed to a number of factors, including lack of access, cost, fear of shame, and discrimination. Many people are also not referred to treatment until there is a crisis, such as an overdose or arrest.

"This report comes at a critical point in time, drawing national attention to a public health epidemic that continues to sweep the country," said Shaun Thaxter, CEO of Indivior, the maker of the addiction treatment drug Suboxone. "We are encouraged by the proactive steps taken by the U.S. federal government to raise awareness about this chronic disease and ensure that patients have access to the treatment they need.”

Kolodny Leaves Phoenix House

In related news, Andrew Kolodny, MD, the founder and executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), has announced that he is no longer the chief medical officer at Phoenix House, which runs of chain of addiction treatment centers.

Kolodny is now co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy & Management at Brandeis University

PROP, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce opioid prescribing, ended its association with Phoenix House earlier this year. The non-profit Steve Rummler Hope Foundation is now the “fiscal sponsor” of PROP, which allows PROP to collect tax deductible donations.