MIAMI - Alcoholism and drug abuse are a pressing public health crisis in the United States, and addiction should no longer be dismissed as a "character flaw," top US health officials said Thursday.
For the first time, the US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy released a major report on substance abuse, called "Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health."
The report "aims to shift the way our society thinks about substance misuse and substance-use disorders," Murthy said.
"Substance-use disorders represent one of the most pressing public health crises of our time," he said in a statement.
"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."
Some 21 million Americans struggle with a substance-use disorder, which is higher than the number of people who have cancer, the report said.
But too few people are getting treatment—just one in 10.
More than 66 million people admitted to binge drinking in the past month—nearly one in four of the adult and adolescent population.
Not only does addiction break families apart, it also costs the nation dearly—with alcohol abuse wreaking an estimated yearly economic impact of $249 billion and illicit drug use totaling $193 billion.
"For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing," said Murthy.
"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."
Prescription pain relievers are a rising concern, and about 12.5 million Americans report misusing them.
Meanwhile, overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers are soaring.
Every day, 78 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose, "and those numbers have nearly quadrupled since 1999," said Kana Enomoto, principal deputy administrator in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Five decades ago, the US surgeon general released its first report on the dangers of smoking, an action credited with eventually saving millions of lives.
"I am issuing a new call to action to end the public health crisis of addiction," Murthy said, urging greater investment in research on prevention, treatment and recovery, and more policies and programs that get effective help to those in need.
"I recognize there is no single solution," he added.
"How we respond to this crisis is a moral test for America." — AFP