Surgeon General Releases First-Ever Report on Substance Abuse

In it, he recommends public health strategies for combatting the addiction crisis.

Vivek Murthy

Vivek Murthy at a recent event in Boston/Photo by Jamie Ducharme

Vivek Murthy will go down in history as the first surgeon general to issue a report on substance use disorders.

Murthy, who spent years at Brigham and Women’s Hospital before becoming surgeon general, released the wide-ranging document on Thursday. Touching on everything from the biology of addiction to stigmas associated with drug use, the report deems substance abuse “a national public health crisis that continues to rob the United States of its most valuable asset: its people.”

Many statistics in the report are striking. In 2015, it says, 27.1 million Americans were using illicit drugs, and 66.7 million reported binge drinking. Alcohol abuse contributes to 88,000 deaths in the United States each year, and drug overdoses, particularly those related to opioids, are on the rise. On an economic front, substance misuse costs the United States approximately $400 billion each year. The list goes on.

But rather than focusing solely on the devastating effects of the crisis, Murthy also uses the report as a catalyst for change. In its final chapter, “Vision for the Future,” Murthy outlines several key takeaways from the report, and how they should affect policy. They include:

1. Substance misuse is a problem not just for users, but for communities. 

Increasing access to prevention, treatment, monitoring, and education programs, the report says, could “reduce substance misuse and the pervasive health and social problems caused by it.” These changes must happen at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels.

2. Prevention programs work, and should be widely implemented.

By tailoring prevention efforts toward young and at-risk people—including those with genetic, social, and environmental risk factors that often lead to substance abuse—communities may be able to stop drug and alcohol problems before they start. These programs should be evidence-based and administered by those trained to do so.

3. Substance abuse treatment should be integrated with other medical care.

Rather than treating drug and alcohol issues in a vacuum, providers should combine treatment with mental health and primary care. Doing so may encourage more people to seek treatment, reduce stigmas associated with substance use disorders, and improve health outcomes. States should ensure that financing and licensing policies make such an integration possible, and addiction medicine should be part of medical education.

4. We must improve access to addiction treatment.

Studies show only about 10 percent of those struggling with substance abuse seek help. If that number went up, America’s public and financial health would likely benefit. “Enhanced federal communication will help increase public understanding about individuals’ rights to appropriate care,” the report says. “Within health care organizations, active screening for substance misuse and substance use disorders combined with effective communication around the availability of treatment programs could do much to engage untreated individuals in care.”

5. Continuing to research substance abuse is crucial.

A larger body of research will not only help identify new therapies and prevention tactics, but hammer home that addiction is a medical condition—not a moral failing. Both of those results could make major strides in reducing the epidemic currently facing this country.

You can see the full report here.