Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

In The News

From: Ames Sweet
To: Jeffrey A. Schaler
Date: April 23, 2003

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence


For More Information, Contact:
Ames Sweet, Director of Communications
(212) 269-7797, ext. 16
For Immediate Release:
April 23, 2003


NEW YORK, NY - The recent ABC Television special titled "Help Me! I Can't Help Myself" which aired on Tuesday, April 21, 2003, was woefully one-sided, misleading, and factually incorrect. To suggest that alcoholism is nothing more than a "matter of choice" dangerously oversimplifies what is one of America's primary public health issues: alcoholism.

It has been many years since the American Medical Association first proclaimed alcoholism to be a "complex disease" in their landmark statement of 1967. Considerable progress has been made in the intervening years to inform an American public overrun with misleading alcohol advertising to recognize the considerable dangers of alcoholism and to encourage alcoholics to seek help. Unfortunately, programs like the ABC-TV special reinforce the stereotypical perception of alcoholism as a moral failing and help prop up barriers to effective treatment.

By suggesting that alcoholism is simply a "bad habit" rather than a biopsychosocial disease, the ABC special has unnecessarily brushed aside years of valid, science-based research and information. Alcohol, like heroin and other illicit substances, is an addictive drug. Over time, its use can lead to craving and impaired control. Even if the decision to drink is voluntary at first, what happens after someone takes a drink depends to a large degree on an individual's genetic vulnerability and how one's mind and body react to alcohol.

"Within the last decade, much has been clarified about brain effects in alcoholism and drug addiction," says Dr. Robert Morse, chair of NCADD's Medical/Scientific Committee. "For example, we now know about many of the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) changes that occur as one becomes alcoholic. Dr. Alan Leshner, former Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), coined the term, 'Addiction is a brain disease' a couple of years ago. Through its research in nicotine, cocaine, and opiate addictions (both in animals and in humans), NIDA found that there may be a core biochemical change that takes place in any addiction and has to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine and the nucleus accumbens (a center in the midbrain)."

With such advances in neuroscience, there is a much better understanding of alcohol's direct effects on brain chemistry, indicating that alcoholism and addiction are far more than a "bad habit."

Unfortunately, the ABC-TV special, watched by thousands of viewers across the country, was particularly unbalanced, presenting only one side of the story -- that addiction is the simple manifestation of personal choice and that, once addicted, individuals can simply make another choice to "un-addict" themselves. While, clearly, there is a volitional component to alcoholism and addiction, the ABC program did not give any credence to the proven addictive properties of alcohol and other drugs and the overpowering physical and biochemical nature of addiction.

According to author James Frey, who appeared on the program, "People need to get rid of the idea that addiction is caused by anything other than themselves. They're not victims of anything other than their own bad decisions." Further, John Stossel, the program's moderator, summed up in this way: "Calling addiction a choice may sound harsh, but it's actually good news. We have the power. We're not helpless victims. Whether it's drugs, alcohol, or anything else, we have the strength to conquer our bad habits."

While this may be the moderator's wry sentiment, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence feels that there are millions of alcoholics across the United States who cannot simply "un-addict" themselves and need help for themselves and their families as they try to avoid alcoholism's final consequence: death.

Regarding the stigma attached to alcoholism, Dr. Sally L. Satel, a so-called "addiction expert," psychiatrist and professor at Yale University who appeared on the show, said, "Why would you want to take the stigma away? I can't think of anything more worthwhile to stigmatize?" Sadly, this shortsighted statement misses the reality that while stigmatizing alcoholism and addiction may maintain a moral hierarchy of negative behaviors, stigma also keeps people from seeking help.

As the oldest advocacy organization in the United States addressing alcoholism and drug dependence, NCADD works at the national level on policy issues related to barriers in education, prevention and treatment for alcoholics and other drug dependent persons and their families. With a nationwide network of Affiliates, NCADD provides education, information, help and hope to the public. For more information, visit: or call the national HOPE line for information and referral: 800-NCA-CALL.