In 1964, the U.S. surgeon general released a report on the health impacts of smoking, and it shaped the public and government’s attitudes toward tobacco for years to come. On Thursday, another surgeon general’s report was issued, this time tackling a much broader issue: addiction and the misuse and abuse of chemical substances. The focus isn’t just one drug, but all of them.
Though little in the report is new, it puts impressive numbers to the problem, and some surprising context: More people use prescription opioids than use tobacco. There are more people with substance abuse disorders than people with cancer. One in five Americans binge drink. And substance abuse disorders cost the U.S. more than $420 billion a year.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is closing in on his second year as surgeon general, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep Thursday on Morning Edition that he hopes putting all the data together will help Americans understand that these problems share a common solution. And it starts with kids. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On the prevalence of substance abuse in the United States
An estimated 20.8 million people in our country are living with a substance use disorder. This is similar to the number of people who have diabetes, and 1.5 times the number of people who have all cancers combined. This number does not include the millions of people who are misusing substances but may not yet have a full-fledged disorder. We don’t invest nearly the same amount of attention or resources in addressing substance use disorders that we do in addressing diabetes or cancer, despite the fact that a similar number of people are impacted. That has to change.
We now know from solid data that substance abuse disorders don’t discriminate. They affect the rich and the poor, all socioeconomic groups and ethnic groups. They affect people in urban areas and rural ones. Far more people than we realize are affected. It’s important for us to bring people out from the shadows, and get them the help that they need.
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