The Politics of Addiction

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 4, 2009 11:20 am

The faces of addiction come in every color and gender. The disease creeps into the lives of those from a wide spectrum of socio-economic levels, backgrounds, and experiences. It crosses continents, latitudes, and longitudes. That’s the thing about addiction–it doesn’t discriminate. Neither should politicians. Particularly when it comes to funding the research to help those who need treatment most.

Jessica’s got a thoughtful post up over at Bioephemera on double standards, politics, and drug treatment research. Having spent two years as a AAAS fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, she understands the gravity of the issue. Jess writes:

..research to help smokers quit is generally portrayed as necessary and important, [while] increasingly, I’m seeing politicians complain that research to help other drug addicts quit is a waste of money.

Maybe it’s because these other addicts are meth addicts, or potheads, or heroin addicts – probably not people you relate to or approve of. That makes it pretty easy for the media to take cheap shots at crack, etc. addicts, and question whether we should waste money trying to help them. But we should get angry about these cheap shots…Tobacco is still a significant public health problem, and I want to do all we can to help smokers (like my mom) quit, but crack, meth, etc. utterly destroys families and communities. We should be leveraging scientific research every way we can to help these people – not throwing them away or taking shots at them because they’re “bad,” or because we can’t relate to them. They’re real people. They have families.

Nevertheless, people routinely and cynically use drug treatment research as a political football.

Of course it’s not news that politicians bash science research to score points with the voting public: Sarah Palin notoriously mocked fruit fly studies along the campaign trail while John McCain took issue with grizzly bear research and the Adler Planetarium. And the truth is that this tactic probably continues to win votes since science remains such a partisan issue. But when it comes to people–and finding the means to treat those most in need–a political agenda is unquestionably not acceptable.

Lots of us like to imagine there are justifiable reasons we’re the most deserving of the best care when sick. The truth is that better treatment and attention should not come as a result of wealth, location, or the social acceptability of a disease. Like Jess, I agree we must let doctors and scientists continue to study drug abuse and test treatments in the real world. That’s the way research progresses and results are achieved.

I’ll leave you with this illuminating video Jess posted that demonstrates the problem:


Comments (9)

  1. Jenita

    It’s amazing how the people on TV are the stupidest people ever. If smoking cessation doesn’t count as scientific research, what does? Morons are on TV and our future generations (kids) are watching and learning from them. Great…

  2. Julian

    What wackos watch Fox News anyway?

  3. magistramorous

    @ 3. Julian: Unfortunately a lot of people watch Fox News, including people in Congress.

  4. Sorbet

    The sad part is that a lot of working class people watch Fox news and it influences their thinking. The Factor is one of the most watched programs on primetime television. I think that the reason is again human beings’ consistent proclivity toward believing sensationalist and entertaining statements rather than more boring-sounding, moderate analysis. It’s hard to see how to get around this problem of human nature.

  5. Erasmussimo

    This is just another example of the anti-intellectualism rampant in American culture. I do not believe the reporter’s characterizations of the various studies; over and over we have seen how a reporter can twist the facts.

    I have a friend who just retired from her job as a cost analyst for the DoD. She was fairly high up, and so I sometimes asked her about news stories about DoD waste. She would explain the situation in detail, and in almost every case, the spending was perfectly reasonable and had been misrepresented by the news media. The few cases where she agreed that money had been wasted involved contracts that went out to provide services normally provided directly by the military. The military was so overstretched that they had to turn to outside contractors to handle some of the needs of the troops in Iraq. These contractors, realizing the time pressure that the DoD was under, engaged in price gouging and got away with it because the contracts were “rush jobs” that by law do not have to go through the normal bidding process. I’ve probably gotten a few details wrong in my description, but that’s the basic idea.

  6. Sara

    What gets me about this FOX video clip is the deliberate attempt to distract from the millions of dollars dedicated towards shared human progress in curing disease.
    In that video clip, where is the mention of the awarded grants for specific cancer treatment? What about diabetes and heart disease? Where would we be in the battle for HIV/AIDS if the NIH had not been involved?
    Oh oops that may be one of those topics that gets under the skin of those anchors at FOX.

  7. Brian Too

    The truth is that science is not politics, they operate by different rules.

    In politics you can say things that are are only partly true, or not true at all, and normally there are no consequences. Politics rewards the joke, the quip, the “avenging crusader” riding in to save the taxpayer’s hard-won dollars. Style counts, big time.

    Science is all about the facts of course.

    The upshot is that it’s always easy for a politician to take shots at the detail-oriented nerds, especially when the funding is so often dependant upon the politicians.

    I don’t wish to trivialize politicians or glorify scientists. They are both necessary and they both have their place. However we know that it’s easy to take cheap shots against science from the politicians.

  8. scott

    The vulgarity of Fox news is astonishing. Furthermore, the story is without merit. That said, let’s not pretend that all funded science is worthy. A friend once observed that, “science is like art: you have to have a lot of bad science if you are going to have any good science.” I agree, and I’m an academic scientist.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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