U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released a report on Nov. 17 in which he called for a "culture change" in which people in the U.S. radically rethink the way they view addiction, classifying it as an epidemic on par with AIDS and cigarette smoking.
In the report, titled "Facing Addiction," Murthy called the tendency to become addicted a brain disease, not a moral issue, and he said that the stigma surrounding substance abuse keeps people from treatment, reports The Washington Post.
"I'm calling for a culture change in how we think about addiction," Murthy said. "Unless we eradicate the negative [stereotypes] ... we won't create an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help."
Approximately 20.8 million people in the U.S. struggled with addiction in 2015, the report found, which is roughly the same number as those with diabetes and 50 percent more than those with cancer. More than 27 million people reported using illegal drugs or abusing prescription medications in 2015, and more than 66 million reported binge drinking in the previous month.
But only 10 percent of those with addiction problems received treatment that year.
"We would never tolerate a situation where only 1 in 10 people with cancer or diabetes gets treatment, and yet we do that with substance-abuse disorders," said Murthy. "We have a crisis of addiction of significant scale."
Several public health and addiction experts have lauded Murthy's approach, agreeing that too few people seek treatment.
"We need to get people away from this idea that people choose to be addicts," said Community Concepts CEO Shawn Yardley, who works with Maine residents who have substance abuse problems, according to the Portland Press Herald. "They don't. Just like people don’t choose to have heart disease or diabetes, even though they might have made lifestyle choices that contributed to those diseases."
The report found modern treatments to be effective and noted that addicts relapse at similar rates as those recovering from chronic diseases. For those recovering from alcohol abuse, for example, it can take four or five years before their chance of relapsing drops below 15 percent.
"The reason I'm issuing this report is I want to call our country to action around what has become a pressing public health issue," Murthy said. "I want our country to understand the magnitude of this crisis. I'm not sure everyone does."