Is Addiction Just a Matter of Choice?

Watching TV, you'd think the whole country is addicted to something: drugs, food, gambling — even sex or shopping.

"The United States has elevated addiction to a national icon. It's our symbol, it's our excuse," says Stanton Peele, author of The Diseasing of America.

There are conflicting views about addiction and popular treatments. So, we talked with researchers, psychologists and "addicts" and asked them: Is addiction a choice?

Publicity about addiction suggests it is a disease so powerful that addicts no longer have free will. Lawyers have already used this "addict-is-helpless" argument to win billions from tobacco companies.

Blaming others for our "addictions" is popular today.

In Canada, some lawyers are suing the government, saying it is responsible for getting people addicted to video slot machines.

Jean Brochu says he was unable to resist the slot machines — that he was "sick." He says the government made him sick, and his sickness led him to embezzle $50,000. Now, he's suing the government to restore his dignity and pay his therapy bills.

Psychologist Jeff Schaler, author of Addiction Is a Choice, argues that people have more control over their behavior than they think.

"Addiction is a behavior and all behaviors are choices," Schaler says. "What's next, are we going to blame fast-food restaurants for the foods that they sell based on the marketing, because the person got addicted to hamburgers and french fries?"

Well, yes, actually. Two weeks after he said that some children sued McDonald's, claiming the fast-food chain made them obese. They lost the first round in court, but they're trying again.

Uncontrollable Impulses?

"Impulse control disorder" is the excuse Rosemary Heinen's lawyer used to explain Heinen's shopping. Heinen was a corporate manager at Starbucks who embezzled $3.7 million, which she then used to buy 32 cars, diamonds, gold, Rolex watches, three grand pianos, and hundreds of Barbie dolls.

In court a psychiatrist testified Heinen was unable to obey the law, and shouldn't be given the seven-year prison sentence she was facing. The judge, however, did put Heinen behind bars, sentencing her to 48 months.

The "helplessly addicted" defense seemed to work better for the Canadian gambler. The judge gave Brochu probation and told him to see a psychologist. His mother paid back the $50,000 he stole.

Now Brochu and his lawyer are seeking $700 million on behalf of all addicted gamblers in Quebec, claiming the government is responsible for getting them addicted, too.

Calling Addiction a Disease

Many scientists say addicts have literally lost control, and that they suffer from a disease.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse calls drug addiction a "disease that will waste your brain." This is our government's official policy. And government-funded researchers, like Stephen Dewey of Brookhaven National Labs, tend to agree.

They say their studies of addiction in monkeys and rats show that addiction is a brain disease.

"Addiction is a disease that's characterized by a loss of control," says Dewey.

Dewey takes his message to schools, showing kids brain scans that he says prove his point. He tells students that addiction causes chemical changes that hijack your brain.

Genetic Destiny?

Dewey and other researchers say our genes predispose some of us to addiction and loss of control.

Researchers at Harvard University believe they may have found one of those genes in the zebrafish.

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