4 Ways the NY Times Totally Blew It on Addiction Coverage
No publication has been more responsible for propagating myths of addiction than the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times. Here are four of the worst, and their consequences.
1. The Anti-Addiction Pill. Benoit Denizet-Lewis is an iconic author who became a contributing writer to the Times magazine in his twenties, where he dealt with his own sex addiction. Denizet-Lewis went on to author America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life. D-L faced a significant obstacle: how to justify his commitment to the 12 steps of AA while claiming the mantle of science. He dealt with this issue in his 2006 Times magazine article, “An Anti-Addiction Pill?”
D-L attended a conference that “was a celebration of the new ways scientists and addiction researchers are conceptualizing, and seeking to treat, addiction. While many in the treatment field have long called addiction a disease, they've used the word in vague and metaphorical ways, meaning everything from a disease of the mind to a disease of the spirit.” These scientists were “able to peer into our heads to begin to prove” that addiction is a brain disease, and create a pill to cure it.
How is the pill thing going? I recently reviewed in AlterNet the best anti-addiction pill candidate: Naltrexone. A 2015 study by the leading academic brain disease figure in America, Charles O’Brien, found that a placebo reduced drinking for alcoholics exactly as much as Naltrexone. A systematic review of Naltrexone used to prevent relapse in opioid addiction found “oral naltrexone did not perform better than treatment with placebo or no pharmacological agent.”
My larger point is that it is a misunderstanding of the nature addiction to believe that it can be reduced to a gene or biology and solved by a pill. And pursuing that route has proved disastrous.
Here’s the funny thing—Denizet-Lewis didn’t believe all of that high-flown brain-peering himself! He ended his article with a plea by his fellow 12-step advocate, William Cope Moyers: "I was born with what I like to call a hole in my soul.. . .A pain that came from the reality that I just wasn't good enough. That I wasn't deserving enough. For us addicts, recovery is more than just taking a pill or maybe getting a shot." (For Moyers, like D-L, this means he needed the 12 steps.)
Consequences: In the decade since D-L announced the imminence of a pill to cure addiction, how are we doing? The United States conducts a national survey of alcohol problems every ten years. The study found a 50% increase in alcohol-use disorders between 2001-02 and 2012-13. Meanwhile, we are experiencing record levels of heroin, painkiller, and tranquilizer deaths. As I pointed out in The Influence, we’ve lost the war on addiction over the last decade.
Conclusion: We should develop new ways to conceptualize and treat addiction.
2. General in the Drug War. In 2011 Abigail Zuger wrote a paean to Nora Volkow (the print article featured photos of Volkow pirouetting in what looks to be an Armani suit). Incidentally, why is it a good thing to be a general in the drug war?
Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the most important human being in the world in selling the idea that addiction, and everything else, can be reduced to a neurochemical:
From heroin and cocaine to sex and lies, Tetris and the ponies, the spectrum of human addictions is vast. But for Dr. Nora D. Volkow, they all boil down to pretty much the same thing. She must say it a dozen times a day: Addiction is all about the dopamine.
Free will is an illusion, according to Volkow, in her piece “Addiction is a Disease of Free Will” (which did not appear in the Times):
[We as a society must] understand that addiction is not just a disease of the brain, but one in which the circuits that enable us to exert free will no longer function as they should. Drugs disrupt these circuits. The person who is addicted does not choose to be addicted; it's no longer a choice to take the drug.
For Volkow, taking certain drugs inevitably addicts people, from which they can never escape. Every bit of epidemiological evidence contradicts her, starting with that most people who use drugs (that’s right, even narcotics) don’t become addicted and most who do recover on their own.
Incidentally, there are two myths of addiction: the AA myth that alcoholics are born, not made, and the opioid myth that everyone who samples a narcotic inevitably becomes addicted and inescapably remains addicted.
Many cracks are appearing in these two opposing monoliths. First is rejection of the idea that addiction is an innate quality, as Ilse Thompson and write in our 2015 book, Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.
Second to be rejected is the idea that narcotics are different from other human activities. In The Meaning of Addiction, in 1985, I wrote: “heroin does not appear to differ significantly in the potential range of its use from other types of involvements, and even compulsive users cannot be distinguished from those given to other habitual involvements in the ease with which they desist or shift their patterns of use.”
Consequences: The record levels of alcohol use disorders and drug-related deaths have occurred on Volkow’s watch (she was appointed head of the NIDA in 2003). This is because Volkow has enshrined as science AA’s powerlessness message.
Conclusion: As our current approach fails, why do we keep following it?
3. â€‹Opiates Addict You and Make You Die. Jan Hoffman, a health features writer for the Times, was given the task of propagating the Times’s addiction myth per the Prince story:
A patient undergoes a procedure to address a medical issue — extracted wisdom teeth for example, or, as Prince did, orthopedic surgery. To help the patient get through recovery, a dentist or surgeon writes a prescription for opioid painkillers, like Percocet or Vicodin.
Then addiction and death.
How many ways do I need to refute this story? Did you (or your child) become addicted and die after receiving a painkiller for a tooth extraction or knee surgery? If you didn’t, you were in good company. Tens of millions of Americans receive painkillers without those outcomes. In fact, as Hoffman makes clear:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids, which include prescription pain relievers and heroin, killed more than 28,000 people in 2014. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health said 4.3 million people were using pain relievers for nonmedical purposes that year.
Whoa! This means that fewer than a half of a percent of nonmedical opioid users, including heroin users, died in a record year for both heroin and opioid painkiller deaths. But, wait a second, Hoffman has just implied that Prince had been using painkillers medically prescribed for pain relief. So Prince falls within a much larger denominator of opioid users, including tens of millions of Americans, so that Prince represents the smallest fraction of a fraction of such users who die.
In fact, as we make it harder to get painkillers, we drive people to go outside their prescriptions, and perhaps move to heroin, which has become cheaper and easier to get. My colleague at The Influence, Ken Anderson, describes this process:
Those who die of prescription opioid overdose are typically chaotic, high dose opioid users who get drugs from multiple sources including multiple doctors, friends, and buying them illegally. They typically mix them with other drugs, and are typically middle aged, depressed or otherwise mentally ill, unemployed, and in chronic pain. These people are still getting their supplies one way or another regardless of the new guidelines. And a certain number switch to heroin when nothing else can be bought. But this is a very tiny fraction or opioid users—even a very tiny fraction of non-medical users/dependent users.â€‹
â€‹Consequences: Our opioid hysteria, fanned by the Times, kills the most vulnerable.
4. The Times’s China Cat Fiasco. I’ve saved the worst for last. And this is, to borrow Donald Trump’s terminology, really unbelievable.
On August 31, 1994, the Times blared a front-page headline "13 Heroin Deaths Spark Wide Police Investigation." The article began: "They call it China Cat, an exotic name for a blend of heroin so pure it promised a perfect high, but instead killed 13 people in five days."
But the men had not all been using China Cat, necessitating a quick follow-up entitled “Potent New Blend of Heroin Ends 8 Very Different Lives.”
At first, the police suspected that the men . . . had all died after using an extremely potent blend of heroin called China Cat . . . . Now the police and the New York City Medical Examiner, Dr. Charles Hirsch, say the men may have been victims of that brand or some similar, equally powerful blends of heroin . . . . But as one police officer put it: “They're all still dead.” In the end, drug experts said, the brand name probably has little significance. (my emphasis)
The italicized sentence is the Times’s way of waving off its inaccuracies (“no harm, no foul”) by saying their crazy errors really didn’t matter, according to unnamed experts.
But it gets worse. A further correction, “Officials Lower Death Total Attributed to Powerful Heroin,” was buried far inside the paper:
Authorities yesterday lowered from fourteen [another fatality had been added] to eight the number of deaths in the last week that the police believe are related to highly concentrated heroin. . . .two of the 14 men originally suspected of having died from taking the powerful heroin had actually died of natural causes. Four others died of overdoses of cocaine . . . . Of the eight whose deaths apparently did involve heroin, seven also had traces of cocaine in their system." (my emphasis)
Thus, the “newspaper of record” ran a fictitious front-page story about a super potent form of heroin laying waste to the city, then discovered that exactly one man had “apparently” died from taking some type of heroin by itself, without ever notifying readers that it had propagated as fact a dangerous myth. Bravo!
Consequences: The China Cat fantasy contributed mightily to the drug overdose myth. Nearly all drug “overdoses” (the CDC now calls them “drug poisonings”) are due to mixing heroin, prescription painkillers, benzodiazepines, alcohol, and cocaine. This phenomenon may help to explain the surge in heroin deaths as heroin purity has declined since the 1990s.
Spot quiz: From what did Philip Seymour Hoffman die? Answer: “acute mixed drug intoxication,” including heroin, cocaine, tranquilizers and amphetamines.
Conclusion: Do I really think that the New York Times contributes to drug deaths in America? Yes, I do. By propping up every illogical, unsubstantiated, unscientific myth and rumor about drugs (doing so sanctimoniously, no less), the Times makes it impossible
to come to grips with the human and social reality of drug use and addiction, in which the most vulnerable suffer the worst outcomes,
to create non-hysterical policies that allow people to use drugs in ways that they prefer, and which may benefit their physical and mental health.
The China Cat fiasco is a remarkable expression of the Times’s thinking about and modus operandi with drugs. By indicating to people they should use less powerful/pure narcotics, the newspaper of record caused/causes people who take the “grey lady” seriously to use lower doses of the narcotic combined with other drugs.
The Times then washes it hands of the deadly outcomes of its misinformation and awaits its next opportunity to blare out a new headline: “Drug Are Bad.”