The surgeon general wants to permanently change the way we think about addiction.

Jess Keefe didn't know her brother Matt had a drug problem until he was rushed to the hospital in 2011.

His hand was swelling up, he was in pain, and no one knew what it was. After days of tests and close watching, Matt was diagnosed with an infection caused by intravenous drug use. A brain scan revealed the culprit: heroin.

"He was very much in denial," Jess explains. "He didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening and was very resistant to treatment of any kind."


Matt Keefe. Photo courtesy of Jess Keefe.

In the coming weeks, Jess and her family tried as hard as they could to get Matt into a recovery center but to no avail. None of the detox and rehab centers in their area had space for him. Matt was sent home to his parents with a firm verbal prescription: Stop doing drugs.

Tragically, it didn't work. Matt recovered temporarily, but eventually started using again and died of an overdose on Oct. 5, 2015, at the age of 26.

Despite the fact that drug addiction affects tens of millions of Americans every year, treatment for it is remarkably hard to come by.

More than 100 Americans die from drug overdoses every day, making it the number one cause of accidental death in the United States — more than car accidents and gun deaths, according to CDC reports. Overdoses from opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.

This neighborhood in Staten Island has a high rate of heroin use. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Despite those high numbers, only about 10% of people with substance abuse disorders receive specialty treatment for their addictions.

Filling the enormous gap between the necessity and availability of treatment requires a massive overhaul of our medical, educational, and criminal justice systems. The first step, though, is the same one that people have to take when they enter addiction recovery: We have to acknowledge that we have a problem.

In a new landmark report, Vivek Murthy became the first U.S. surgeon general to call America's addiction problem what it is: a public health crisis.

The report, released in November 2016, urges a paradigm shift in the way we think of and treat addiction. In it, Murthy calls on the United States to stop thinking of substance abuse as a "moral failing" and approach it instead it as a brain disease that is identifiable, preventable, and treatable.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking with President Obama in 2015. Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images.

"We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw," the report says. "It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer."

Jess Keefe, who now works as an editor for Shatterproof, an addiction-focused nonprofit, says she is "thrilled" by the report, which was released a little over a year after her brother's overdose. "I can’t emphasize enough how exciting that is to people who are affected by this disease personally, and people who work in the sort of space that I do."

Addiction in America has reached critical mass, and it's taken decades to fully acknowledge it. So what's been holding us back?

People don't die from addiction, Jess says. They die from shame. "That's the thing that really kills people. They feel like they can’t reach out or get resources when they need them because its something that's driven into the dark corners."

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Jess' brother, Matt, for example, hid his addiction from his family until it landed him in the emergency room. Even after, he continued hiding it, holding down a nine-to-five job all the way until the day he died.

Human beings have a long history of stigmatizing diseases we don't fully understand — from leprosy, to cancer, to AIDS in the 1980s. The results of that stigma can be devastating and far-reaching, especially when it persists for generations. Stigma and shame are what keep people with addictions from coming forward to seek help and why doctors and recovery systems can be unprepared to handle those patients when they do.

Until the systems are fixed, until the stigma is addressed, people like Matt will continue to feel discouraged from asking for help, and people will continue to die.

Like any massive problem, solving America's addiction crisis will require a lot of time and dedication, but Murthy has taken a major step forward.

The surgeon general is the highest ranking doctor in the United States, and his acknowledgement of addiction as a public health epidemic will no doubt lead to the medical community having more of the resources and training necessary to fight it

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

The surgeon general's report, however, is just the beginning. The rest of the fight is largely up to us.

Our part in destigmatizing addiction begins with the words we use, says Jess. Instead of calling someone an "addict," for example, which can carry harmful connotations, we can say "person with addiction" or "person with a substance abuse disorder." That small shift in language helps recontextualize addiction as a disease that a person has, rather than their unshakable identity.

When someone stops doing drugs, calling them "clean" carries an implication that the alternative is dirty. "If someone's not using, they’re 'in recovery,'" suggests Jess. "Stuff like that actually has a big impact on how society perceives people with these problems and also how people with these problems perceive themselves."

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The real battle is the one that needs to happen in our minds and in our hearts. Chances are we all know someone, or will know someone, who will face a substance abuse disorder. Thinking of that individual not as someone who's made terrible judgements but as someone with a treatable disease of the brain will help us all provide support and empathy for people in need.

Treating addiction with compassion instead of judgment isn't just the right thing to do; it could be life-saving.

Family

As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

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Don't test on animals. That's something we can all agree on, right? No one likes to think of defenseless cats, dogs, hamsters, and birds being exposed to a bunch of things that could make them sick (and the animals aren't happy about it, either). It's no wonder so many people and organizations have fought to stop it. But did you ever think that maybe brands are testing products on us too, they're just not telling us they're doing it?

I know, I know, it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but that's exactly what e-cigarette brands like JUUL (which corners the e-cigarette market) are doing in this country right now, and young people are on the frontlines of the fallout. Most people assume that the government would have looked at devices that allow people to inhale unknown chemicals into their lungs BEFORE they hit the market. You would think that someone in the government would have determined that they are safe. But nope, that hasn't happened. And vape companies are fighting to delay the government's ability to evaluate these products.

So no one really knows the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, not even JUUL's CEO, nor are they informing the public about the potential risks. On top of that, according to the FDA, there's been a 78% increase in e-cigarette usage among high school and middle school-aged children in just the last two years, prompting the U.S. Surgeon General to officially recognize the trend as an epidemic and urge action against it.

These facts have elicited others to take action, as well.

Truth Initiative, the nonprofit best known for dropping the real facts about smoking and vaping since 2000 through its truth campaign, is now on a mission to confront e-cigarette brands like JUUL about the lack of care they've taken to inform consumers of the potential adverse side effects of their products. And they're doing it with the help of animal protesters who are tired of seeing humans treated like test subjects.

The March Against JUUL | Tested On Humans | truth www.youtube.com

"No one knows the long-term effects of JUULing so any human who uses one is being used as a lab rat," says, appropriately, Mario the Sewer Rat.

"I will never stop fighting JUUL. Or the mailman," notes Doug the Pug, the Instagram-famous dog star.

Truth, the national counter-marketing campaign for youth smoking prevention, hopes this fuzzy, squeaky, snorty animal movement arms humans with the facts about vaping and inspires them to demand transparency from JUUL and other e-cigarette companies. You can get your own fur babies involved too by sharing photos of them wearing protest gear with the hashtag #DontTestOnHumans. Here's some adorable inspo for you:

The dangerous stuff is already out there, but with knowledge on their side, young people will hopefully make the right choices and fight companies making the wrong ones. If you need more convincing, here are the serious facts.

Over the last decade, 127 e-cigarette-related seizures were reported, which prompted the FDA to launch an official investigation in April 2019. Since then, over 215 cases of a new, severe lung illness have sprung up all over the country, with six deaths to date. While scientists aren't yet sure of the root cause, the majority of victims were young adults who regularly vaped and used e-cigarettes. As such, the CDC has launched an official investigation into the potential link.

Sixteen-year-old Luka Kinard, a former frequent e-cigarette-user, is one of the many teens who experienced severe side effects. "Vaping was my biggest addiction," he told NowThis. "It lasted for about 15 months of my high school career." In 2018, Kinard was hospitalized after having a seizure. He also had severe nausea, chest pains, and difficulty breathing.

After the harrowing experience, he quit vaping, and began speaking out about his experience to help inform others and hopefully inspire them to quit and/or take action. "It shouldn't take having a seizure as a result of nicotine addiction like I had for teens to realize that these companies are taking advantage of what we don't know," Kinard said.

Teens are 16 times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults, and four times more likely to take up traditional smoking as a result, according to truth, and yet the e-cigarette market remains virtually unregulated and untested. In fact, companies like JUUL continue to block and prevent FDA regulations, investing more than $1 million in lawyers and lobbying efforts in the last quarter alone.

Photo by Lindsay Fox/Pixabay

Consumers have a right to know what they're putting in their bodies. If everyone (and their pets) speaks up, the e-cigarette industry will have to make a change. Young people are already taking action across the country. They're hosting rallies nationwide and on October 9 as part of a National Day of Action, young people are urging their friends and classmates to "Ditch JUUL." Will you join them?

For help with quitting e-cigarettes, visit thetruth.com/quit or text DITCHJUUL to 88709 for free, anonymous resources.

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