4 Reasons Addiction is Considered a Disease

4 Reasons Addiction is Considered a Disease

Addiction meets almost every definition or description ascribed to a disease

Addiction meets almost every definition or description ascribed to a disease, yet many still struggle to categorize it as such. Some part of this struggle is based on a lack of awareness of the impact addiction has on the physical and psychological aspects of an individual. Beyond that, though, it is in a sense a reflection of the prevailing approach to addiction treatment in America.

Essays on the immorality of alcoholism predate the founding of this nation.[1] Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the American temperance movement took root. While this movement did much to assist many struggling with addiction, it nonetheless continued to focus upon the moral aspects of addiction. Throughout the end of the 19th century into the 1940s, disparate thoughts on the cause of addiction, the treatment of addicts and the importance of retaining dignity in this treatment continue to meander the landscape.

A landmark shift occured in 1944 when what we now call the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence was founded on the basis of the following fivefold statement:

  • Alcoholism is a disease.
  • The alcoholic, therefore, is a sick person.
  • The alcoholic can be helped.
  • The alcoholic is worth helping.
  • Alcoholism is our #4 public health problem, and our public responsibility.

This marked the beginning of addiction being seen and treated as a disease. The following years built upon this foundation and include the founding of several public and private organizations focused on the treatment of addiction as a disease.

Unfortunately, many seem to naturally hold to outdated views of addiction. These individuals are the ones who say addicts just have a weak will or perhaps a moral stature that is somehow lacking. They look to blame the addict for being incapable of breaking free of the addiction. However, thoughts like this stand in stark contrast to the facts supporting the idea that addiction is in actuality a disease.

  1. The American Medical Association[2] had identified three components or common criteria in defining a disease: 1) an impairment of the normal functioning of some aspect of the body, 2) characteristic signs of symptoms and 3) harm or morbidity. Addiction meets each of these characteristics.

The function of the brain is abnormally impacted by addiction, and social responses are often quite different as compared to outside of the influence of an addiction. Further, it is remarkable how similar the symptoms are for two individuals suffering the pains of addiction to radically different drugs; stated differently, the cocaine addict and the alcoholic have very similar physiological and psychological responses, and the harm or morbidity is understood. If the American Medical Association calls addiction a disease, who are we to disagree with them?

  1. Addiction creates physical changes in the chemistry of the brain. Neurotransmission[3] is the way in which cells communicate stimuli across the body and is the mechanism that allows an individual to experience his environment in meaningful ways. For example, it is neurotransmission that allows the nose to register the scent of chocolate chip cookies and the brain to understand somebody baked some cookies.

Most drugs impact the process of neurotransmission in one way or another. For example, morphine impacts the neurotransmitters affecting sedation and mood. It is often the change in neurotransmission which produces the sense of being high from a given drug. Over time, the neurotransmitters can be permanently damaged. This can result in poor capacity for memory or reduced motor skills. When an individual becomes aware of this physical change that happens because of addiction, it is easier to compare to other diseases that also result in physical changes such as cancer or sickle cell anemia.

  1. There are genetic predispositions to addiction.[4] While no single gene is directly responsible for addiction, there are a series of genetic combinations that result in an increase in addiction. For frame of reference, the same is true of other diseases such as epilepsy, and the lack of a single genetic source does not impact the reality of addiction as a disease.
  1. Personal choice does play a part in the development of addiction unlike some other diseases. When a child is diagnosed with leukemia, she has done nothing at all to create the presence of this terrible disease in her life. She was just unlucky. In contrast, addiction does not happen without an individual participating. They must choose to use before an addiction is even possible.

This is no different than hypertension being caused in part by weight or stressful situations exacerbating a stroke. While the person certainly contributed to their condition, it is not reasonable to therefore hold them accountable or withhold care because of this participation.

Ready to Find Help With You Addiction?

Part of the recovery process is recognizing addiction for what it is—a chronic condition that needs daily management. An addiction does rob an individual of his true self, and he often needs support to overcome the bad habits developed as a result of his addiction.

If you are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, the weight of feeling like a failure can be overwhelming. Some days you can feel as though your story will never be one that is free from addiction. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. We can help you. We can answer your questions. The admission counselors at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can help you learn more about mental health disorders. They can help you find your way.


[1] http://www.williamwhitepapers.com/pr/AddictionTreatment&RecoveryInAmerica.pdf, William White, “Significant Events in the History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America,” accessed November 1, 2015.

[2] http://www.npr.org/documents/2013/jun/ama-resolution-obesity.pdf, American Medical Association House of Delegates Resolution 420 A-13, accessed November 2, 2015.

[3] http://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2007/10/impacts-drugs-neurotransmission, Carl Sherman, “Impact of Drugs on Neurotransmission”, accessed November 4, 2015.

[4] https://ncadd.org/about-addiction/family-history-and-genetics, “Family History and Genetics, accessed November 4, 2015.