By Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Surgeon General issued a call to action on Thursday to end what he called a public health crisis of drug and alcohol addiction that is underappreciated and undertreated.
Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the first-ever Surgeon General's report on addiction and said he hopes it will galvanize work on the issue the way a similar report more than 50 years ago sparked decades of effort to combat smoking.
U.S. deaths from drug overdoses hit a record in 2014, increasing 6.5 percent to 47,055, propelled by prescription painkiller and heroin abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The most important thing is, we have to change attitudes towards addiction and get people into treatment," Murthy said in an interview. "Addiction is a disease of the brain," he added, "not a character flaw."
The report comes amid a broader government effort to address addiction, in particular opioid painkiller abuse. Opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and morphine and are sold under such brand names as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and Actiq.
"I think it's wonderful to have this come out," said Dr. Bryon Adinoff, an addiction expert at the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute in Dallas, Texas. "It's not really new information but it's a very nice compilation of we know about addiction and the best way to approach treatment."
It is unclear how President-elect Donald Trump's administration will address the issue. Trump's older brother, Freddy, died of alcoholism at 43. As a result, Trump never drinks alcohol.
"We have an incoming president who has a very personal connection to this issue," Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman who has written about his own struggle with addiction, said. "He intimately understands this."
In 2015 more than 27 million people in the United States reported using illegal drugs or misusing prescription drugs. More than 66 million people, or nearly a quarter of all adolescents and adults, reported binge drinking during the previous month.
The estimated annual economic impact of drug abuse is $193 billion, the report states, while the estimated economic impact of alcohol abuse is $249 billion. Every dollar invested in treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs and lost productivity and $7 in criminal justice costs, Murthy added.
The report urges a holistic approach to battling the addiction epidemic that should involve policy makers, regulators, scientists, families, schools and local communities.
The goal is to increase access to existing treatment programs, which Murthy said have been shown to reduce the risk of relapse, while expanding new and more effective programs. Current treatment options include rehab centers and medications.
Murthy stressed the importance of intervening early through school programs to discourage early access to alcohol. If a person has his or her first drink before age 15, the likelihood of developing an alcohol problem is four times greater than if the first drink is taken after the age of 21, Murthy said.
The model Murthy hopes to follow is the 1964 Surgeon General's report on tobacco. At that time 42 percent of the population smoked but few recognized the danger.
"That Surgeon General's report catalysed a half century of work on tobacco control and now the smoking rate is less than 17 percent," he said.
(Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio)