Politicians and Addiction: Disease or Denial
If you tuned into cable news during the last month you may have seen two more politicians engulfed in scandal. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was caught smoking crack and Congressman Trey Radel (R-FL) was caught buying cocaine. The recent events have sparked extensive coverage in the media, political discussions and ample material for comedians. It seems that politicians behaving badly creates a place for society to wrestle with views on addiction and individual responsibility. Choosing to defend, deflect and minimize undesirable public behaviors creates an opening for public attention and ridicule. Choosing to explain objectionable behaviors as addiction has its advantages: it shuts down the media frenzy and legitimizes personal struggles that are better handled privately. Rob Ford has denied his drug use and Trey Radel entered treatment; the results speak for themselves.
Addiction is a complex issue that has been simplified by the addiction-as-disease model. Most professionals in the treatment community appear to agree that addiction is a medical disease because of the changes in the brain that accompany addictive behavior. The benefits of the addiction-as-disease model are clear; stigma is lessened and seeking treatment is the sensible outcome. The disease narrative, however, is not universally accepted. The addiction-as-disease concept was constructed under historical and culturally specific conditions. The disease model of addiction can be reductionistic; it unhelpfully omits personal agency and minimizes other complex psychosocial influences. In the world of politics, the “spin” can provide a way out of public scrutiny and ensure political survival.
The media frenzy around Ford and Radel reinforces the benefits of addiction as a disease. When I turned on the news during the last few weeks, I have seen much more coverage of Rob Ford and his antics than Trey Radel. Rob Ford was even parodied on Saturday Night Live. However, once Radel announced his intent to enter treatment, the media was no longer concerned with his personal life or the political effects of his behavior. We saw no Saturday Night Live parody of Trey Radel. By using the disease narrative, further scrutiny was deflected. Was he hiding or genuinely seeking treatment? The same questions might be raised about Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner, and Eliot Spitzer. Who will be next?