The head of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, says addiction is a treatable disease. She says it is also preventable and that Hollywood can help combat drug abuse through its entertainment products.
Dr. Volkow says television and film can be powerful tools to keep young people from starting down the dangerous road to addiction. One of her favorite films is Maria Full of Grace, about a 17-year-old Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule. She swallows 70 pellets of cocaine to smuggle the illegal substance into the United States. Things do not go as planned, however, once she is in New York.
Dr. Volkow says such tragic tales allow young people to vicariously experience the destruction that drugs can cause in someone's life.
"No one knows exactly what it is to be addicted, the devastation that it creates, unless you've been there," she said. "So the possibility of experiencing that through movies or through television is an extraordinary educational experience."
Dr. Volkow heads the U.S. agency charged with bringing science to questions of drug abuse and addiction. She was in Los Angeles to help give out the PRISM Awards, which honor accurate depictions of drug addiction in the popular media. She also spoke on the nature of addiction before a civic group called Town Hall Los Angeles, where she talked with VOA.
A psychiatrist, Dr. Volkow grew up in Mexico City, the great-granddaughter of the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. She is an expert on the physiology of drug use and says too few people understand that addiction is a disease. She says brain scans of drug users show profound changes caused by alcohol, heroine and cocaine. Even some medical colleagues, she says, fail to appreciate the physical changes brought about by addiction, which alters the parts of the brain that control decision-making.
She adds that children and young people are at the greatest risk because their brains are developing, and that experimentation with drugs can more readily lead to addiction. She says it may begin early.
"It's very surprising when we look at epidemiological data that we have children sometimes starting to experiment with drugs when they are eight or 10 years old," she said.
She says those under 25 are at the greatest risk, but that there is some good news: adolescent drug use is decreasing.
"And in fact, one of our surveys that monitors approximately 50,000 children throughout schools in the United States has shown that over the past four years, there has been a 17 percent decrease in the utilization of drugs by adolescents," noted Dr. Volkow. "And this is a remarkable thing."
She says the survey also shows a significant decrease in cigarette smoking by adolescents, which is important because for some youngsters, at least, smoking is a precursor to drug addiction.
She says the entertainment media play an important role in getting the message across that addictive substances should be avoided.
"It's much more likely that an adolescent will pay attention to the portrayal of someone that looks like him or her and is facing the same problems, and sees how if that person elects to take drugs, how that can spiral downward into crashing that person's life," she said. "So I don't know of any other way that could be more effective."
The health official says there is also good news for those who are addicted. She says drug treatment can be effective, even though addicts are rarely cured.
"The reality is that addiction is a chronic disease, which means that you're going to have to receive continuous treatment, just like it happens for most of the diseases currently - asthma, hypertension, even cance," said Volkow.
She says that like those chronic conditions, drug addiction is manageable and that many approaches work, but for treatment to be effective, it must be tailored to the needs of the individual addict.