The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has redefined addiction as a chronic brain disorder, replacing an older definition that focused on addiction as a behavioral issue.
“At its core, addiction isn't just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem,” said Dr. Michael Miller, past president of ASAM, who oversaw the development of the new definition. “The disease is about brains, not drugs. It's about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”
ASAM will not classify addiction as a primary disease, meaning that it is not the result of other conditions, such as mental illness. It is also a chronic disease, meaning that it must be managed over the entire course of a person's lifetime.
“Simply put, addiction is not a choice,” said Dr. Raju Hajela, chair of the committee that constructed the new definition. “Addictive behaviors are the manifestation of the disease, not the cause.”
Still, doctors said, choosing recovery is necessary, just like it is important for people with chronic heart disease or diabetes to choose a healthy lifestyle. Medical professionals should support and encourage those choices.
“We have to stop moralizing, blaming, controlling or smirking at the person with the disease of addiction and start creating opportunities for individuals and families to get help and providing assistance in choosing proper treatment,” Miller said.