What is addiction? The word is used in everyday parlance to describe everything from our relationship to chocolate to our overuse of Facebook, but the science of addiction is much more complex. In my recent conversation with Dr. Sheldon Weinberg, an addiction specialist with four decades of experience in the field, I was surprised to learn about features of addiction that seem contrary to our everyday notions of dependency.
For example, most of us think of heroin as one of the most addictive drugs. But when researchers tracked a group of Vietnam veterans who used heroin during their time overseas, they found that on their return to the states, more than 95% gave up heroin easily, without intervention of any kind.
So what was going on with these veterans? Dr. Weinberg explains that addiction is not a simple consequence of a substance, but a complex of interactions involving the environment (including social, economic and other factors), the individual, and a substance. The science of addiction, he notes, is in its infancy in terms of understanding and unraveling this complexity, so the term can be used to illuminate or obfuscate the vital public debates that arise around regulation and health policy.
Take for example the advent of e-cigarettes. The technology of using a battery-powered atomizer to heat a nicotine-containing liquid, as used in today’s e-cigarettes, has been in widespread use for less than a decade, but already millions of Americans are “vaping” every day. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control found that High School and even Junior high students are vaping at alarming rates, with the number tripling in just one year.
Given that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, we would expect them to create an addiction, especially among young people, since their developing brains make them more susceptible to addictive behaviors. Some proponents of e-cigarettes suggest that the products will not create addictions like traditional cigarettes, since e-cigarettes don’t produce all of the thousands of chemicals produced from cigarettes, but Dr. Weinberg is not convinced. “The idea that [e-cigarettes] would prove not to produce an internal craving, which if the person ever decided that they wanted to stop it, wouldn’t be very uncomfortable to go through the process of trying to stop it, you would never convince me and I don’t think you would convince anyone in the alcohol or drug field that that’s possible.”...