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Is Addiction a Disease?

The idea that addiction is a disease was first made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1956 the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease and the notion has been broadly accepted in the decades since.

Thinking of addiction as a disease has several advantages. The first is that it reduced judgment of people struggling with addiction. Addiction used to be considered a moral failing, a sign of weakness, or a lack of discipline. To think of addiction as a disease is to neutralize some of the shame associated with it. Shame is a subjective matter, but in general, it would be strange to feel ashamed of having, say, lupus. It may be frustrating, painful, or debilitating, but not shameful.

Shifting addiction from moral failing to disease also encourages social support. Shame and isolation only make addiction worse, so thinking about addiction in a way that mitigate these factors is generally positive, and an improvement over previous thinking.

Like all models, the “addiction is a disease” model has some shortcomings. Whereas diseases are mostly biological, addiction is more complex. There is certainly a biological aspect to addiction, but other factors are perhaps more important. Relying too much on the conception of addiction as disease implies it can be treated medically. While medication may help in some situations, it is not usually enough. For example, studies show Vivitrol, the “addiction vaccine,” improves chances of staying in recovery, but most people who take it still relapse. We would be unimpressed if most people who were vaccinated against measles still got measles. Despite the lukewarm success of this treatment, many drug courts still require it as part of sentencing.

Conversely, it would be strange is measles were treated with counselling or group therapy, both of which are proven effective in treating addiction.

Many people who resist the idea that addiction is a disease claim that drinking and using drugs is a choice and so the “disease” couldn’t take hold in someone who abstains. This distinction may be technically true, but it’s practically useless. Almost everyone in the US has drunk alcohol at some point, but only a small percentage become alcoholics. Do all the people who drink without becoming addicted deserve special credit?

Or consider heart disease, which is highly correlated with smoking and unhealthy eating. Is it not really a disease because the patient chose to smoke or eat badly?

Our notions of what a disease is or what a moral failing is are somewhat arbitrary. Many behaviors we once thought of as evil or immoral have been shown to have biological or developmental causes. Treating these conditions instead of punishing them is progress. On the other hand, we have to remain flexible in how we think about addiction, lest we become seduced by “addiction vaccines” and the like.

Addiction is complex and recovery takes time and effort. At Gardens Wellness Center, we take a multifaceted approach to addiction treatment, one tailored to your specific needs. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at