Addiction

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  • More than 63,000 Americans died of opioid drug overdoses last year, more than the number killed in car crashes.
  • On Wednesday, the FDA approved the first drug designed to treat the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, which can be painful and hook users in a potentially deadly cycle of addiction.
  • Called Lucemyra, the drug is made by pharmaceutical company US WorldMeds.

Deaths from drug overdoses often start with a last-ditch attempt to subdue painful, flu-like symptoms.

Among the signs that someone has suddenly quit taking a painkiller like OxyCodone or Vicodin: nausea, vomiting, shakiness, and pervasive feelings of panic and depression.

Together, those symptoms constitute withdrawal from opioids. Until today, there were no approved drugs specifically designed to treat that condition, which left few options for people who had been taking the drugs. If they took more painkillers (or a cheaper illegal alternative like heroin), they risked overdose, addiction, and death.

But on Wednesday, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first medication made expressly to treat signs of opioid withdrawal. The drug will be sold under the brand name Lucemyra by pharmaceutical company US WorldMeds, and its active ingredient is lofexidine. The compound stops the brain from getting flooded with the chemical transmitter that produces most of those flu-like withdrawal sensations.

Mark Pirner, the medical director of clinical research for US WorldMeds, told Business Insider the drug addresses an issue that’s central to the problem of opioid use disorder, or OUD.

“When people need to transition from one stage in their treatment for OUD into whatever comes next, withdrawal is a huge obstacle. If that happens and they can’t get through it, they’re lost,” Pirner said.

In clinical trials, lofexidine was pitted against a placebo and found to work better at curbing withdrawal symptoms. People who got it were also significantly more likely to complete a week-long treatment program for stopping opioid use than those who got the placebo.

Another tool in the toolbox of medications for drug use

We already have several medications that can curb the most deadly aspects of opioid use disorder, including cravings and the feeling of a high.

Those drugs are buprenorphine and methadone, and researchers have found that when they’re available to people with drug use disorder, the number of overdose deaths plummet.

But despite numerous studies suggesting that these drugs save lives, the medications remain difficult to access.

Meanwhile, the only drug that works to curb withdrawal symptoms is a cheap and widely available blood pressure medication called clonidine, which some medical providers commonly prescribe “off label” for withdrawal.

A large review of studies suggested that clonidine and lofexidine were equally effective for cutting opioid withdrawal symptoms. But clonidine hasn’t been studied specifically for its potential to treat opioid withdrawal, so it’s unlikely the FDA would greenlight it for that use.

Additionally, lofexidine appears to have a slightly lower impact on blood pressure than clonidine, which makes it a bit more appealing to patients and providers.

“This is an FDA-approved drug with clear dosing guidelines,” Pirner said. “We hope this will open up opportunities for prescribers.”

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Evgeny Belikov/Strelka Institute/Flickr
  • At this week’s Google I/O event, the company unveiled an initiative targeted at addressing what many call “tech addiction.”
  • The initiative includes a handful of new features that the company says are designed to help people keep track of their digital time.
  • Scientists who study smartphone and social media use say tech addiction isn’t the real and concrete enemy that some are making it out to be, however.

True story: I once walked headfirst into a pole on my way home from work.

I can’t blame the darkness (the sun had only just begun to set), and I can’t blame my vision (I’d recently gotten new glasses). But I can blame my iPhone, whose vibration had lured me into staring at its crisp bright screen. The text I was responding to was not worth the heart-shaped bruise that I shamefully covered in makeup the next day.

Until my ridiculous injury, I had laughed at stories about the dangers of “walking while texting.” I’d eye-rolled at reports of painful “iPhone neck” from leaning over tiny screens. And I’d never taken the idea of social media addiction seriously.

But that evening, I started to wonder if maybe our generation was screwed – and maybe our smartphones were to blame.

At this week’s Google I/O event, the search giant’s annual developer conference, Google unveiled a “Digital Wellbeing” initiative that it claims is aimed at curbing the phenomenon. Google said the plan would focus on fostering what it calls “JOMO,” the joy of missing out, a clever play on FOMO, the fear of missing out. The initiative includes a handful of new features that the company says are designed to help people keep track of their digital time.

But the reality is that “tech addiction” – at least as a real, full-blown dilemma that causes clinical levels of impairment or distress – may not exist. In fact, some scientists who study the issue believe that tech companies like Google are focusing on a fake problem to avoid addressing issues like privacy and data ownership.

“It serves the interest of larger companies to be debating things like screen time and usage. When you bring it all together you have a big dog and pony show,” Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Business Insider in March.

‘Helping people with their digital well-being is more important to us than ever’

Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
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Stephen Lam/Reuters

Google said at the conference that it wants to help people better track how frequently they use their devices so that they can spend more time doing other things.

“Helping people with their digital well-being is more important to us than ever,” Google’s vice president of product management Sameer Samat said this week.

That includes new features like “Dashboard,” which shows you how often you’re using an Android smartphone or tablet.

Importantly, the company isn’t using the word “addiction” anywhere in its plan.

That’s probably a good thing, Przybylski said. Addiction is a real disorder, and one that’s already heavily stigmatized. Exaggerated claims about the problems that result from using our devices only makes it worse.

Still despite Google’s avoidance of the word “addiction,” the company’s new initiative leans heavily into the idea that by better using our time on devices, we can be happier, better people.

The hard research suggests that this is an exaggerated problem with a fake solution. In reality, all of the headlines that warn us about things like smartphones destroying a generation, ruining our posture and mood, and eroding our brains are simply “a projection of our own fears,” Przybylski said.

Small studies, big problems

Girl iPhone X

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Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

The existing body of research on “tech addiction” suffers from several big problems.

Most are too small to carry statistical power. Many are written by researchers with a clear agenda. And the majority don’t even establish that a device is causing a problem, merely that it could be contributing to an existing one.

Take, for example, the claim that because teen depression and iPhone ownership have been rising at the same time, they must be connected. This is a classic example of correlation, not causation: our phones are not necessarily to blame for cases of depression.

Przybylski has attempted to replicate some of the studies that suggested there’s a strong tie between social media use and depression. When he used larger sets of people in a more well-controlled environment, he failed to find the same results. Instead, he’s found either no link or a very, very small one.

“People are making expansive claims about the link between well-being and tech use, but if this was displayed on a Venn diagram, the circles would overlap one quarter of one percent,” Przybylski said. “It is literally the lowest quality of evidence that you could give that people wouldn’t laugh you out of the room.”

Last year, Przybylski co-authored a study published in the journal Psychological Science in which he examined the effect of screen-time on a sample of more than 120,000 British adolescents. The researchers asked teens how much time they spent streaming, gaming, and using their smartphones and computers. After running the data through a series of statistical analyses, it became clear to Przybylski that screen-time isn’t harmful for the vast majority of teens. In fact, it’s sometimes helpful – especially when teens are using it for two to four hours per day.

“Overall, the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world,” Przybylski wrote in the paper.

Even when it came to those positive results, however, Przybylski said the significance of the effects they observed was tiny.

“If you’re a parent and you have limited resources, the question becomes: which hill are you going to die on? Where do you want to put your limited resources? Do you want to put it into making sure your kid has breakfast or gets a full night’s sleep? Because for those activities the effects are three times larger than they would be for screen-time,” Przybylski said.

Seeing problems everywhere

walking and texting

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Flickr / Robert Couse-Baker

Many parents fear that using social media is universally bad for teens. They get distracted by text messages during class; they miss out on family time because they’re texting at the dinner table; they scroll through Instagram instead of going to sleep.

Once you see a few examples of phone-obsessed behavior – a whole family staring silently at their phones while eating a restaurant, say – you tend to notice it more wherever you go.

This may be partially a result of the phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Essentially, you see one event that supports an idea you already have, then because you are hyper-aware of these types of activities, you find more examples that appear to confirm that idea.

It’s a bit like when you begin shopping for a certain kind of car – a Honda Civic, let’s say – then suddenly notice that everyone appears to be driving a Honda Civic. In reality, that model hasn’t gotten more popular overnight; you’re simply primed to notice them.

“A lot of the research is bound up in these problems,” Przybylski said. “Our concerns or panic about a new thing” – in this case, social media – “guide how we do the research and interpret the results.”

Distorted, negative viewpoints have likely influenced the research on a host of new inventions and activities throughout history.

Unfortunately, paying attention exclusively to social harms makes us blind to the ways a new technology may be help us. In the case of social media, such biases can take attention away from other more serious problems.

“It’s important to think about all the things we’re not talking about here. We don’t talk about things like privacy, advertisements, who owns your data, and all this stuff that’s actually important,” Przybylski said.

When social media may help, not harm

teens

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REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Candice L. Odgers, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California Irvine, specializes in studying new technologies and adolescent development. She told Business Insider in March that social media may be having some positive effects on teens and young adults, but many people are not paying attention to that research.

“The digital world hasn’t created a new species of children. Many of the things that attract them to things about social media are the same things that attract them to other activities,” Odgers said.

“There are a lot of good things that are happening with social media use today and there’s been a really negative narrative about it.”

A large review of 36 studies published in the journal Adolescent Research Review concluded that instead of feeling hampered by their screens, teens are chiefly using digital communication to deepen and strengthen existing in-person relationships. The authors concluded that young adults find it easier to display affection, share intimacy, and even organize events and meet-ups online.

Similarly, the authors of a 2017 review of literature on social media and screen time published by UNICEF concluded that “digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships” and that most young people are using it to “enhance their existing relationships and stay in touch with friends.”

Kids who struggle to make friends in person may even use digital tools to “compensate for this and build positive relationships,” they said. A small 2018 study of British teens in foster care supports that idea – it suggested that social media helped young people maintain healthy relationships with their birth parents, make new friends, and ease the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Other research, including a small 2017 study of Instagram users aged 18-55, suggests that teens also turn to platforms like Instagram as a means of exploring the world and dreaming up potential adventures – a category of people the researchers classified as “feature lovers.”

“Feature lovers want to see something that’s exotic or unique; they’re looking at Instagram and they’re thinking, ‘take me to China or Alaska or some place I can’t afford to go,’” T.J. Thomson, the lead author of the study, told Business Insider in March.

You’re probably not ‘addicted’ to Facebook or Instagram

The researchers behind these studies emphasized that social media and smartphones are not so much an “addiction” as a novel, attention-grabbing platform for enhancing existing activities and relationships.

In other words, social media has similar impacts on the brain as lots of other types of activity – too much or too little can be linked with negative impacts, while moderate use can have positive results.

“Claims that the brain might be hijacked or re-wired by digital technology are not supported by neuroscience evidence and should be treated with skepticism,” the authors of the UNICEF review wrote.

Addiction is a complicated but serious problem that neuroscientists have yet to fully understand. It typically stems from a cache of interconnected factors that include our environment and our genes. As a result, classifying our nearly-universal reliance on digital tools as an “addiction” simply isn’t fair to the people whose lives have been torn apart by things like alcoholism or drug use.

A chief characterizing factor of addictive behavior is that use of a given substance interferes with daily activity so much that people can’t function normally. Studies suggest that social media, by contrast, is often used to enhance existing relationships, and does not decrease real-world interactions or cause uniform harm.

Research does indicate, however, that people who may already be predisposed to depression and anxiety could suffer more as a result of using these types of “compare-and-despair” platforms.

A series of studies published in the journal Information, Communication, and Society found that while people’s Facebook use had no impact on their social interactions later that day, scrolling through the platform did appear to be linked with lower feelings of well-being if the person had been alone earlier in the day.

“People who use social media alone likely aren’t getting their face-to-face social needs met,” Michael Kearney, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “So if they’re not having their social needs met in their life outside of social media, it makes sense that looking at social media might make them feel even lonelier.”

There are plenty of simple, healthy ways to address these risks without resorting to harsh measures like breaking up with your smartphone. If Google’s latest initiative can help with that, then I’m all for it. But it’s important to remember that these initatives do not erase larger concerns around privacy and data ownership.

I, for one, no longer text when I walk. But I’m still actively monitoring what I share with Google, Apple, Instagram, and Facebook.

It’s a small change, but my forehead – and my sense of “digital well-being” – are grateful.

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Shutterstock
  • The US Food and Drug Administration is beginning to crack down on a wildly popular vape pen called the Juul, which contains twice the nicotine of comparable devices.
  • A growing list of experts worry the Juul targets young people, whose brains are especially vulnerable to nicotine and addiction.
  • In a statement on Tuesday, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb called out the Juul and said the agency would “not tolerate the sale of any tobacco products to youth.”

It looks like a USB drive, comes in colors like fire-engine red and bright turquoise, and is available in flavors like creme brûlée and cool mint.

The Juul (pronounced “jewel”) appears to have a loyal and growing following among young people, who brag on social media about sneaking puffs in classrooms or school bathrooms.

The device is unique among e-cigs in that it contains twice the nicotine of comparable devices. Its makers have acknowledged that factor may have played a role in the Juul’s rapid success: it generated $224 million in retail sales from November 2016 to November 2017 and snagged a third of the total e-cig market share.

Teachers, doctors, lawmakers, and regulators are now sounding the alarm about a device that experts experts say poses a risk to teens whose developing brains are especially vulnerable to nicotine’s addictive qualities. On Tuesday, the US Food and Drug Administration public released its first concrete plans to crack down on the Juul.

The government effort revealed at least 40 retailers that are allegedly breaking the law with regard to their sale of the Juul to teens. The FDA is sending warning letters to those retailers – which includes convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Circle K – beginning today, the statement said.

“Let me be clear to retailers,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in the statement, “this blitz, and resulting actions, should serve as notice that we will not tolerate the sale of any tobacco products to youth.”

The FDA is starting to crack down on the Juul – beginning with an ‘undercover blitz’

juul e-cigarette

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JUUL Labs

Nicholas Chadi, a clinical pediatrics fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, spoke about the Juul at the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s annual conference this month.

“Of course they’re not marketed to children, but when they’re bright pink and flavored like candy…” he said sarcastically, “What do you expect?”

Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, has been researching the Juul, and told Business Insider that she considers its high nicotine content “scary.”

Last week, Senate democratic whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and 10 other Senators sent two letters to Juul Labs, Inc., the makers of the device, saying that their products “are undermining our nation’s efforts to reduce tobacco use among youth.”

The devices put “an entire new generation of children at risk of nicotine addiction,” one of the letters says.

The FDA’s new plan appears to respond to concerns like these. In his statement, Gottlieb outlined new strategies the agency is taking to curb youth access to the Juul and other e-cigs, including what the agency calls a “large-scale, undercover nationwide blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes – specifically Juul products – to minors at both brick-and-mortar and online retailers.”

Experts worry that vaping is creating a new generation of smokers

JUUL In Hand Female Denim Jacket copy

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Pax Labs

A mushrooming cadre of experts worry that the Juul and other addictive vape pens could be creating a new generation of adults who are dependent on nicotine.

Juul Labs’ chief administrative officer, Ashley Gould, recently told Business Insider that the company’s mission is actually to help adult smokers quit. But a growing number of studies suggests that while e-cigs may help some adults wean themselves off conventional cigarettes, teens who use them are at a significantly higher risk of taking up smoking.

Young people who vape are between two and seven times more likely to eventually smoke conventional cigarettes compared with teens who never try e-cigs, according to a spate of research published over the last three years.

A March study from Dartmouth University put the trend into stark numerical terms: the results suggested that 2,070 adults across the US used e-cigs to quit smoking in 2015, but another 168,000 young people who used the devices went on to become smokers of conventional cigarettes.

“Based on the existing scientific evidence … e-cigarette use currently represents more population-level harm than benefit,” the Dartmouth researchers wrote.

Concern for developing and vulnerable brains

Chadi, the clinical pediatrics fellow, said he’s seen a growing number of teens using the devices. He worries about the long-term effects, since human brains aren’t fully developed until age 25.

“We get calls from parents across Boston wondering what to do about this,” Chadi said.

The crux of the problem centers on what nicotine does to the teen brain – especially in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in emotional control, decision making, and impulse regulation.

Like other drugs, nicotine has a different impact on a developing brain than on the brain of an adult. Brain imaging studies of adolescents suggest that people who begin smoking regularly at a young age have markedly reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and perform less well on tasks related to memory and attention compared to people who don’t smoke.

Chadi said these brain changes are also linked with increased sensitivity to other drugs as well as greater impulsivity. He described some of the anecdotal effects of nicotine vaping that he’s seen among teens in and around his hospital.

“After only a few months of using nicotine [these teens] describe cravings, sometimes intense ones. Sometimes they also lose their hopes of being able to quit. And interestingly they show less severe symptoms of withdrawal than adults, but they start to show them earlier on. After only a few hundred cigarettes – or whatever the equivalent amount of vaping pods – some start showing irritability or shakiness when they stop,” he said.

Chadi is also concerned about how to approach the problem, since the standard health questions many doctors ask don’t account for e-cigs.

“You might ask a teen, ‘Do you smoke?’ and you’d probably get a ‘No.’ But are they vaping? Absolutely,” Chadi said.

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REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
  • The death toll from the opioids epidemic continues to soar.
  • Experts say we already have a science-backed treatment that works: medication-assisted treatment, or MAT.
  • The problem, however, is that very few people can get it.

The death toll from the opioids epidemic continues to soar – nearly 64,000 people died in 2016 alone. Scientists are working to find creative tools to fight it, and President Donald Trump has called the overdose crisis a public health emergency. But he has not yet outlined any targeted solutions aside from calling for drug dealers to be given the death penalty.

A growing cadre of health professionals say we already have a science-backed treatment that works. It’s called medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, and it involves administering FDA-approved medications that help curb cravings and reduce the excruciating symptoms of withdrawal.

“Medications are an effective treatment for opioid addiction,” Kelly J. Clark, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told Business Insider.

The problem is that very few people can get those medications.

Only about half of private-sector treatment programs for opioid use disorder currently offer access to MAT, and of those that offer it, only one third of patients actually receive the medication, according to a study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

There are many reasons for this lack of access to medication. Some stem from a misconception about how the treatments – which can include buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone – work. The stigma surrounding drug use and addiction plays a role, too. Still other issues include federal and state laws that restrict the availability of the medications.

“It’s more of an implementation problem than a basic science problem,” Clark said, “because we know what works.”

Medications do not ‘substitute one drug for another’

In someone with opioid use disorder, using the drugs is often not a pleasurable experience, but rather a practice that has become a necessary fact of life. Being without the drugs leads to painful symptoms that can include severe nausea, shaking, diarrhea, and depression. The need to use is simultaneously a physical and emotional compulsion – the lines between those kinds of pain are blurred.

One of the main misconceptions about medication-assisted treatment is that medications simply replace the drugs that hooked users – leading to more highs and fueling a pattern of repeated use.

But that view is outdated and ill-informed, experts say. Instead, the drugs work by staunching cravings and reducing or preventing withdrawal and relapse. Buprenorphine and methadone help suppress cravings, while naltrexone blocks the euphoric and sedative effects of opioids so users don’t experience a high.

“People ask me all the time, ‘well, aren’t they just substituting one drug for another?’ The answer is no. These are evidence-based treatments and they work,” Patrice A. Harris, the former president of the American Medical Association and a board certified psychiatrist, told Business Insider.

Several large studies suggest that as access to MAT rises, drug overdose deaths fall. A study of heroin overdose deaths in Baltimore between 1995 and 2009 published in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, found a link between the increasing availability of methadone and buprenorphine and a roughly 50% decrease in the number of fatal overdoses.

“These treatments are life saving and they work,” Sarah Wakeman, the medical director of the substance use disorder initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard, told Business Insider.

From jail to court to rehab, medication-assisted treatment is hard to find

Despite the evidence demonstrating MAT’s effectiveness, it is surprisingly difficult to obtain.

One of the hardest-to-access forms of medication for recovery is methadone. In the US, the medication can only be accessed in specialized clinics; because of the way the treatment works, people on MAT must come to a facility to be injected daily. But those facilities typically have negative reputations because of policies that restrict them to locations considered seedy or run-down. And patients who come for treatment often have to push past active drug users – a big trigger for someone with substance use disorder – on their way to and from the clinic.

“You can access heroin pretty easily, yet we make it really hard to get a treatment that’s life-saving and allows you to live healthily,” Wakeman said.

On Friday, the US Food and Drug Adminstration issued a new set of guidelines aimed at underlining the important role MAT should play treating opioid use disorder.

“Unfortunately, far too few people who suffer from opioid use disorder are offered an adequate chance for treatment that uses safe and effective medications,”commissioner Scott Gottlieb said.

Other countries take a very different approach to medication-assisted treatment that makes the treatments easier to obtain. In Canada, for example, methadone is distributed in pharmacies.

Rehabilitation facilities and courts in the US often don’t offer medication-assisted treatment either. Instead, most operate on an abstinence-based model, in which patients must detox and then are offered counseling. They’re encouraged to attend 12-step meetings like Narcotics Anonymous, which remains opposed to MAT despite the growing body of evidence behind it.

Among staff at rehab centers across the US, many workers maintain the belief that the medication doesn’t work and say clients will “abuse” medications. Stephanie Rogers, an intake coordinator at Talbott Recovery, an Atlanta-based addiction treatment center, told Business Insider that she “honestly believed” that MAT was “just substituting one drug for another.”

This trend runs in sharp contrast to the way treatment for other conditions has changed based on new research. When it comes to type 2 diabetes, for example, a large body of scientific evidence demonstrated that the medication insulin helped curb the symptoms of the illness. Those findings prompted medical professionals across the country to uniformly endorse and offer it.

Even among rehab center workers who do understand the potential of medication-assisted treatment, many told Business Insider that their facilities aren’t licensed to provide MAT in the first place. San Diego-based drug treatment center AToN, for example, lacks the proper licensing to provide methadone to patients, according to its program director.

Turning the tide requires buy-in from officials and medical providers

Some officials, including judges who preside over courts that see people brought in on drug offenses, are trying to update their policies to incorporate the most recent research on addiction treatment.

Judge Desiree Bruce-Lyle presides over several such courts at the Superior Court of San Diego County. She told Business Insider that she became convinced of the efficacy of MAT after attending an American Society of Addiction Medicine conference and speaking to some of its leaders, including Kelly Clark and vice president Penny S. Mills.

“I didn’t believe in [MAT] until I met Penny and Kelly last year and they convinced me why it was a good thing and then I heard from a lot of the speakers that were attending that we needed to take a look at it,” Bruce-Lyle said.

Still, out of roughly 50 participants in the reentry court that Bruce-Lyle helps oversees, only one or two are on MAT, she said. In their veterans court, which includes roughly 60 people, three or four are on MAT.

“I’d like to see more of it,” Bruce-Lyle said, but added that she felt she’d need to convince key players at the court – including the Sheriff and other leaders – of the treatment’s efficacy.

A handful of physicians and social workers are also helping to lead the charge by calling attention to the scientific evidence that shows MAT is more effective than an abstinence-only model. Wakeman, the assistant professor at Harvard, travels around the country giving presentations at conferences like the one that helped change Bruce-Lyle’s mind.

“Medication-assisted treatment saves lives,” Wakeman said. “You can also just call it ‘treatment’ and drop the two words in front of it.”

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Evgeny Belikov/Strelka Institute/Flickr
  • Frequent social media use and screen time have been portrayed as universally bad for our health.
  • However, a lot of research on this phenomenon has been characterized by poorly done studies and bad science.
  • The vast majority of evidence suggests that our smartphones are not uniformly harmful, and in some cases, they may be a force for good.

True story: I once walked headfirst into a pole on my way home from work.

I can’t blame the darkness (the sun had only just begun to set), and I can’t blame my vision (I’d recently gotten new glasses). But I can blame my iPhone, whose vibration had lured me into staring at its crisp bright screen. The text I was responding to was not worth the heart-shaped bruise that I shamefully covered in makeup the next day.

Until my ridiculous injury, I had laughed at stories about the dangers of “walking while texting.” I’d eye-rolled at reports of painful “iPhone neck” from leaning over tiny screens. And I’d never taken the idea of social media addiction seriously.

But that evening, I started to wonder if maybe our generation was screwed – and maybe our smartphones were to blame.

So I did some digging: I pored over scientific studies and talked to researchers who specialize in psychology, sociology, addiction, and statistics. A few experts were emphatic that social media addiction is real and should be added to the DSM IV, long considered the diagnostic bible for psychologists. Others hedged their bets and said more studies were needed.

But the conclusion I gathered was the opposite of what I’ve been hearing in the news. Social media and smartphones are not ruining our brains, nor will either become the downfall of a generation.

The vast majority of the large and well-designed statistical studies on smartphones and the brain actually suggest these technologies are having little to no effect on our health and well-being. And in some cases, the availability of social media and phones may be a power for good.

‘The lowest quality of evidence you could give that people wouldn’t laugh you out of the room’

texting working late

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Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock.com

Most of the headlines about social media – the ones that warn us about smartphones destroying a generation, ruining our posture and mood, and eroding our brains – are simply “a projection of our own fears,” Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Business Insider.

That’s because most existing studies on social media’s effects suffer from the same problems that have plagued the social science field for decades.

For one thing, many of the studies are too small to carry a lot of statistical power, Przybylski said. Researchers also often go into a study with an agenda or hypothesis that they hope their study will support.

Take, for example, the claim that because teen depression and iPhone ownership have been rising at the same time, they must be connected. This is a classic example of correlation, not causation: our phones are not necessarily to blame for cases of depression.

Przybylski has attempted to replicate some of the studies that suggested there’s a strong tie between social media use and depression. When he used larger sets of people in a more well-controlled environment, he failed to find the same results. Instead, he’s found either no link or a very, very small one.

“People are making expansive claims about the link between well-being and tech use, but if this was displayed on a Venn diagram, the circles would overlap one quarter of one percent,” Przybylski said. “It is literally the lowest quality of evidence that you could give that people wouldn’t laugh you out of the room.”

Last year, Przybylski co-authored a study published in the journal Psychological Science in which he examined the effect of screen-time on a sample of more than 120,000 British adolescents. The researchers asked teens how much time they spent streaming, gaming, and using their smartphones and computers. After running the data through a series of statistical analyses, it became clear to Przybylski that screen-time isn’t harmful for the vast majority of teens. In fact, it’s sometimes helpful – especially when teens are using it for two to four hours per day.

“Overall, the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world,” Przybylski wrote in the paper.

Even when it came to those positive results, however, Przybylski said the significance of the effects they observed was tiny.

“If you’re a parent and you have limited resources, the question becomes: which hill are you going to die on? Where do you want to put your limited resources? Do you want to put it into making sure your kid has breakfast or gets a full night’s sleep? Because for those activities the effects are three times larger than they would be for screen-time,” Przybylski said.

Seeing problems everywhere

walking and texting

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Flickr / Robert Couse-Baker

Many parents fear that using social media is universally bad for teens. They get distracted by text messages during class; they miss out on family time because they’re texting at the dinner table; they scroll through Instagram instead of going to sleep.

Once you see a few examples of phone-obsessed behavior – a whole family staring silently at their phones while eating a restaurant, say – you tend to notice it more wherever you go.

This may be partially a result of the phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Essentially, you see one event that supports an idea you already have, then because you are hyper-aware of these types of activities, you find more examples that appear to confirm that idea.

It’s a bit like when you begin shopping for a certain kind of car – a Honda Civic, let’s say – then suddenly notice that everyone appears to be driving a Honda Civic. In reality, that model hasn’t gotten more popular overnight; you’re simply primed to notice them.

“A lot of the research is bound up in these problems,” Przybylski said. “Our concerns or panic about a new thing” – in this case, social media – “guide how we do the research and interpret the results.”

Distorted, negative viewpoints have likely influenced the research on a host of new inventions and activities throughout history.

Unfortunately, paying attention exclusively to social harms makes us blind to the ways a new technology may be help us. In the case of social media, such biases can take attention away from other more serious problems.

“It’s important to think about all the things we’re not talking about here. We don’t talk about things like privacy, advertisements, who owns your data, and all this stuff that’s actually important. So actually it serves the interest of larger companies to be debating things like screen time and usage. When you bring it all together you have a big dog and pony show,” Przybylski said.

When social media may help, not harm

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REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Candice L. Odgers

, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California Irvine, specializes in studying new technologies and adolescent development. She told Business Insider that social media may be having some positive effects on teens and young adults, but many people are not paying attention to that research.

“The digital world hasn’t created a new species of children. Many of the things that attract them to things about social media are the same things that attract them to other activities,” Odgers said. “There are a lot of good things that are happening with social media use today and there’s been a really negative narrative about it.”

A large review of 36 studies published in the journal Adolescent Research Review concluded that instead of feeling hampered by their screens, teens are chiefly using digital communication to deepen and strengthen existing in-person relationships. The authors concluded that young adults find it easier to display affection, share intimacy, and even organize events and meet-ups online.

Similarly, the authors of a 2017 review of literature on social media and screen time published by UNICEF concluded that “digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships” and that most young people are using it to “enhance their existing relationships and stay in touch with friends.”

Kids who struggle to make friends in person may even use digital tools to “compensate for this and build positive relationships,” they said. A small 2018 study of British teens in foster care supports that idea – it suggested that social media helped young people maintain healthy relationships with their birth parents, make new friends, and ease the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Other research, including a small 2017 study of Instagram users aged 18-55, suggests that teens also turn to platforms like Instagram as a means of exploring the world and dreaming up potential adventures – a category of people the researchers classified as “feature lovers.”

“Feature lovers want to see something that’s exotic or unique; they’re looking at Instagram and they’re thinking, ‘take me to China or Alaska or some place I can’t afford to go,’” T.J. Thomson, the lead author of the study, told Business Insider.

You’re probably not ‘addicted’ to Facebook or Instagram

Girl iPhone X

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Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

The researchers behind these studies emphasized that social media and smartphones are not so much an “addiction” as a novel, attention-grabbing platform for enhancing existing activities and relationships.

In other words, social media has similar impacts on the brain as lots of other types of activity – too much or too little can be linked with negative impacts, while moderate use can have positive results.

“Claims that the brain might be hijacked or re-wired by digital technology are not supported by neuroscience evidence and should be treated with skepticism,” the authors of the UNICEF review wrote.

Addiction is a complicated but serious problem that neuroscientists have yet to fully understand. It typically stems from a cache of interconnected factors that include our environment and our genes. As a result, classifying our nearly-universal reliance on digital tools as an “addiction” simply isn’t fair to the people whose lives have been torn apart by things like alcoholism or drug use.

A chief characterizing factor of addictive behavior is that use of a given substance interferes with daily activity so much that people can’t function normally. Studies suggest that social media, by contrast, is often used to enhance existing relationships, and does not decrease real-world interactions or cause uniform harm.

Research does indicate, however, that people who may already be predisposed to depression and anxiety could suffer more as a result of using these types of “compare-and-despair” platforms.

A series of studies published this month in the journal Information, Communication, and Society found that while people’s Facebook use had no impact on their social interactions later that day, scrolling through the platform did appear to be linked with lower feelings of well-being if the person had been alone earlier in the day.

“People who use social media alone likely aren’t getting their face-to-face social needs met,” Michael Kearney, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “So if they’re not having their social needs met in their life outside of social media, it makes sense that looking at social media might make them feel even lonelier.”

There are plenty of simple, healthy ways to address these risks without resorting to harsh measures like breaking up with your smartphone. I, for one, no longer text when I walk.

It’s a small change, but my forehead is grateful.

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Shutterstock

Vaping appears to be wildly popular among teens who use e-cigs illegally. And in an ironic twist, teens who try vaping are at a far higher risk of becoming smokers compared with teens who don’t.

A new study puts the figure into stark numerical terms: while as many as 2,070 adults used e-cigs to quit in 2015, another 168,000 young people who used the devices went on to become smokers of conventional cigarettes. The analysis, led by researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University, was published this month in the journal PLOS One.

It comes alongside a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that roughly four out of five adolescents are exposed to e-cig advertisements.

“Based on the existing scientific evidence … e-cigarette use currently represents more population-level harm than benefit,” the Dartmouth researchers wrote in their study.

As many as 168,000 new smokers

man vaping outdoors

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Shutterstock

For the new study, Dartmouth researchers used 2014 census data and surveys to build a mathematical model of the link between vaping and smoking. Their evidence suggests that during 2015, roughly 2,070 smokers successfully quit with the aid of e-cigs.

But within the same time frame, their model suggested that as many as 168,000 young people who’d never previously smoked cigarettes started smoking regularly after vaping for the first time.

That said, the study is a model – it’s not a controlled study that looks at actual habits, so the findings are somewhat limited. There’s also no way to know, for example, if the e-cig users in the study who went on to smoke conventional cigarettes might have become smokers anyway, although the researchers attempted to control for that in their model.

But the new analysis is far from the first study to show evidence that teens who vape are more likely to go on to smoke.

A spate of research dating back as far as 2015 has suggested that teens who vape are anywhere between two and seven times more likely to eventually smoke conventional cigarettes as teens who never try e-cigs.

Still, scientists aren’t clear why this is happening.

While some have argued that vaping could be linked with a so-called “gateway effect” whereby young people who vape become addicted to nicotine and are thus more likely to transition to traditional cigarettes, others have said this doesn’t make sense.

“I honestly can’t think of why this would be,” Ana Rule, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University and an author of another study on e-cigs and teens told Business Insider about the phenomenon. “It is my understanding that vaping is a much more pleasurable experience, is socially acceptable (as opposed to smoking) and delivers a good dose of nicotine.”

Either way, public health experts are worried about vaping’s growing popularity among young people.

Why vaping is so popular among teens

marijuana vaporizer vaping vape

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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

At high schools across the country, vaping has become a fad with its own verb.

This is not entirely surprising. Kids and teens are exposed to a plethora of advertising for e-cigs that mimics much of the cigarette advertising of the 1960s. A CDC report published Friday found that roughly four in five middle and high school students saw e-cig ads in 2016.

Although ostensibly healthier than deadly cigarettes, e-cigs still contain highly addictive nicotine. The devices also possess a handful of qualities that make them especially appealing to young people.

Unlike conventional cigarettes, which have a natural stop mechanism – they burn to the end – e-cigs can be re-filled and reused. Additionally, e-cigs are discrete and sometimes odorless (or have a non-offensive smell). Vaping isn’t universally banned in indoor and outdoor places. Many vape pens are sleek, small, colorful, and fairly affordable.

But the evidence is mounting that teens who vape are more likely to go on to smoke conventional cigarettes.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that teens who vaped had three times the risk of eventually smoking conventional cigarettes as teens who never tried e-cigs. A larger follow-up study done the following year appeared to confirm those findings, as did a 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health which looked at roughly 1,150 British adolescents aged 11 to 18.

For the 2018 paper, teens whose nicotine exposure began with e-cigs appeared to have as much as a 12 times greater chance of smoking cigarettes 4 months later than kids who didn’t vape, even after the researchers controlled for several big risk factors for smoking.

The first large and comprehensive review of all the published research on e-cigs added some additional weight to that conclusion, finding “substantial evidence” that young people who vape are more likely to smoke conventional cigarettes than those who don’t.

“Vaping among teens is my (and most public health professionals) biggest worry,” Rule told Business Insider last month.

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Sam Rega / Business Insider
  • Kratom is an opioid derived from a plant native to Southeast Asia. It can be consumed in pills, powder, or tea.
  • On Thursday, the CDC issued its third warning in a month that the drug, often called an “herbal supplement,” had been linked to salmonella, bringing the total number of sick people to 87.
  • It’s still unclear what is at the root of the outbreak, but data from CDC labs and field investigations points to kratom as the most likely source.

The Food and Drug Administration calls it a dangerous opioid, but kratom advocates call their pill of choice a life-saving supplement. Either way, it’s been linked with a growing salmonella outbreak.

Kratom is a psychoactive drug derived from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a plant in the coffee family that is native to Southeast Asia. Research suggests the drug taps into some of the same brain receptors as opioids do, spurring the FDA to classify it as one this February.

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control reported 47 additional cases of salmonella linked to kratom, bringing the total number of cases to 87. Salmonella is a bacterial infection from contaminated food or water that typically causes diarrhea and abdominal pain lasting up to a week.

As with any unregulated supplement, kratom may be dangerous and even deadly because there’s no way to verify what pills labeled “kratom” actually contain. Nevertheless, some marketers tout kratom as capable of delivering super-human strength and feelings of euphoria along with powerful pain relief and better focus. Untainted kratom is also sometimes hailed as a way to treat opioid addiction, which some addiction experts have said is not entirely unreasonable given its opioid-like qualities.

But unlike most opioids, which are either illegal or must be prescribed by a doctor, kratom is widely available online. It was even sold for a time out of an Arizona vending machine.

“At this time, CDC recommends that people not consume any brand of kratom in any form because it could be contaminated with Salmonella,” the agency wrote in a statement on Thursday, adding, “evidence indicates that kratom is the likely source of this … outbreak,” but “no common brands or suppliers of kratom products have been identified” yet.

As with most of its bacterial outbreak warnings, the agency interviewed people reporting symptoms of the infection to try to nail down the cause by asking sick people what foods and beverages they ate in the previous months and if they’d been traveling. Out of 55 people interviewed, 40 of them (73%) reported consuming kratom in pills, powder, or tea.

That means it’s still unclear precisely what caused the outbreak, though kratom seems to be the most likely culprit.

At this point in their investigation, health officials are collecting kratom products to test them for Salmonella bacteria. So far, officials in Oregon, North Dakota, and Utah have turned up samples of kratom powder used by sick people which tested positive for the bacteria. Both individuals said they bought the powder online.

Salmonella warnings like this from the CDC are not unusual.

The agency recently issued one for shredded raw coconut, for example. In that case, 10 (63%) of 16 people interviewed said they had eaten or “maybe eaten” coconut, with eight of those 10 saying they’d eaten a dessert drink made with frozen shredded coconut. And earlier this year, the CDC sent out a warning about raw sprouts. In interviews the CDC conducted when it was investigating that case, seven people reported eating at the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s, and all of them said they’d eaten sandwiches with raw sprouts.

Kratom is increasingly raising eyebrows

Kratom pills

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Kratom pills
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Psychonaught/Wikimedia Commons

Beyond this recent salmonella outbreak, kratom is becoming a topic of concern across multiple agencies, including the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, for other reasons.

Kratom has never gained FDA approval and is largely unregulated – meaning that, as with most supplements, it’s almost impossible to verify what’s actually in “kratom” pills, powders, or teas.

Last month, the FDA released a new warning officially classifying kratom as an opioid based on a series of case reports and computer models.

Those reports loosely connected kratom to 44 deaths, but in all but one case, the people who died were found to have been taking multiple drugs, including other opioids in many cases. That makes definitively labeling kratom as the cause of death impossible.

Still, concern about kratom is mounting, especially because some people appear to be using the supplement as a way to step down from opioid painkillers like heroin and morphine.

“Patients addicted to opioids are using kratom without dependable instructions for use and more importantly, without consultation with a licensed health care provider about the product’s dangers, potential side effects or interactions with other drugs,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a previous statement in November.

While this concern is legitimate, there is no way to know precisely how kratom does – or doesn’t – work without rigorous scientific testing, which has not yet been done.

Kratom is banned in Australia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and several US states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin). Across the US, several reports of deaths and addiction led the Drug Enforcement Administration to place kratom on its list of “drugs and chemicals of concern.” In 2016, the DEA proposed a ban on kratom but backtracked under pressure from some members of Congress and outcry from kratom advocates who said it could help treat opioid addiction.

“I want to be clear on one fact: there are currently no FDA-approved therapeutic uses of kratom,” Gottlieb said.

Prince performs onstage at the 2006 BET Awards.

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Prince performs onstage at the 2006 BET Awards.
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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Fentanyl, a drug that’s 30 times stronger than heroin and claimed the lives of more than 20,000 Americans last year, has been implicated in the deaths of celebrities including Prince and Tom Petty.

A new report from the Associated Press confirms the drug played a big role in Prince’s death. A toxicology report obtained by the AP reveals that Prince had “exceedingly high” levels of fentanyl in his system when he died in 2016.

Here’s what the drug is, and how it makes its way to the US from China.


Fentanyl can take many forms. Available legally with a prescription, the drug is often prescribed in patches or injected through an IV. On the street, it typically shows up in pills and may be disguised as another opioid painkiller like oxycodone.

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Ampule of fentanyl in solution
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Erowid Center

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Since 1999, overdose deaths involving opioid painkillers have quadrupled. In 2016, close to 64,000 Americans died from opioids. Roughly 20,100 of those deaths were from fentanyl alone.

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Business Insider / Samantha Lee

Fentanyl is increasingly showing up in counterfeit pills seized by authorities on the street. These pills, which were labeled hydrocodone, were recovered by authorities during a recent fentanyl investigation in Northern California.

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Reuters

Since fentanyl is so much more potent than other opioid painkillers, drug traffickers only need to pack their drugs with small amounts of it to provide users a powerful punch. But a tiny bit too much can be deadly.

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On the left, a lethal dose of heroin; on the right, a lethal dose of fentanyl.
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New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

Sources: Fusion, “Death by Fentanyl,” 2016; The Globe and Mail, “How Canada got addicted to fentanyl,” 2016


Five of the six online fentanyl vendors investigated in a new Senate report are based in China. The sellers sent hundreds of packages to more than 300 sources in the US by way of the US Postal Service (USPS).


Previous investigations have also implicated Mexico in the trade. Sometimes, the components for the drug come from China and are fashioned into large quantities of powder by traffickers in Mexico. Other times, the components appear to be shipped directly to the US and made into drugs inside the country.

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Drew Angerer/Getty

Traffickers pack up the powder in boxes disguised with harmless labels. In Southern California, authorities recently seized a group of boxes labeled as office supplies that were later found to be part of a drug manufacturing scheme. One of them contained a quarter-ton pill press — used to punch out pills — that had been labeled “hole puncher.”

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In Mexico, a version of the drug mixed with heroin is called “El Diablito,” or the little devil. “There’s almost nobody making pure heroin anymore, because el diablito is so much stronger,” one trafficker recently told a Fusion reporter as part of an investigation into the trade.

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Fusion/YouTube

Source: Fusion, “Death by Fentanyl,” 2016


That trafficker said he got the precursor chemicals from China and paid a Colombian chemist $50,000 to show him how to make fentanyl.

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YouTube/Fusion

Source: Fusion, “Death by Fentanyl,” 2016


The drugmakers change up the specific ingredients in the drugs so fast — and produce them in such massive quantities — that drug enforcement can’t keep up. Between 2013 and 2014, drug busts that turned up fentanyl rose by 426%.

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YouTube/Fusion

Source: STAT News, “Chinese labs modify deadly fentanyl to circumvent ban on sales to US,” 2016


The US Drug Enforcement Administration may not have adequately prepared for the surge. In a 2015 report on national drug threats, DEA officials stated that fentanyl was “unlikely to assume a significant portion of the opioid market.”

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YouTube/Fusion

Source: 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, DEA


It appears that prediction was incorrect. Instead of decreasing or flat-lining, the rate of drug overdose deaths from fentanyl increased 88% every year between 2013 and 2016, according to the latest CDC data.


“We now know the depth to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the United States,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), an author on the recent Senate report, said in a statement. “The federal government can and must act to shore up our defenses against this deadly drug and help save lives.”

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Shutterstock

Which is worse for you: weed or whiskey?

It’s a tough call, but based on the science, there appears to be a clear answer.

Keep in mind that there are dozens of factors to account for, including how the substances affect your heart, brain, and behavior, and how likely you are to get hooked.

Time is important, too – while some effects are noticeable immediately, others only begin to crop up after months or years of use.

The comparison is slightly unfair for another reason: While scientists have been researching the effects of alcohol for decades, the science of cannabis is a lot murkier because of its mostly illegal status.


More than 30,700 Americans died from alcohol-induced causes in 2014. There have been zero documented deaths from marijuana use alone.

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Gerardo Garcia/Reuters

In 2014, 30,722 people died from alcohol-induced causes in the US – and that does not count drinking-related accidents or homicides. If those deaths were included, the number would be closer to 90,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, no deaths from marijuana overdoses have been reported, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A 16-year study of more than 65,000 Americans, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that healthy marijuana users were not more likely to die earlier than healthy people who did not use cannabis.


Marijuana appears to be significantly less addictive than alcohol.

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Shutterstock

Close to half of all adults have tried marijuana at least once, making it one of the most widely used illegal drugs – yet research suggests that a relatively small percentage of people become addicted.

For a 1994 survey, epidemiologists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse asked more than 8,000 people from ages 15 to 64 about their drug use. Of those who had tried marijuana at least once, roughly 9% eventually fit a diagnosis of addiction. For alcohol, the figure was about 15%. To put that in perspective, the addiction rate for cocaine was 17%, while heroin was 23% and nicotine was 32%.


Marijuana may be harder on your heart, while moderate drinking could be beneficial.

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Flickr/maxbraun

Unlike alcohol, which slows your heart rate, marijuana speeds it up, which could negatively affect the heart in the short term. Still, the largest-ever report on cannabis from the National Academies of Sciences, released in January, found insufficient evidence to support or refute the idea that cannabis may increase the overall risk of a heart attack.

On the other hand, low to moderate drinking – about one drink a day – has been linked with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke compared with abstention. James Nicholls, a director at Alcohol Research UK, told The Guardian that those findings should be taken with a grain of salt since “any protective effects tend to be canceled out by even occasional bouts of heavier drinking.”


Alcohol is strongly linked with several types of cancer; marijuana is not.

In November, a group of the nation’s top cancer doctors issued a statement asking people to drink less. They cited strong evidence that drinking alcohol – as little as a glass of wine or beer a day – increases the risk of developing both pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer.

The US Department of Health lists alcohol as a known human carcinogen. Research highlighted by the National Cancer Institute suggests that the more alcohol you drink – particularly the more you drink regularly – the higher your risk of developing cancer.

For marijuana, some research initially suggested a link between smoking and lung cancer, but that has been debunked. The January report found that cannabis was not connected to any increased risk of the lung cancers or head and neck cancers tied to smoking cigarettes.


Both drugs may be linked with risks while driving, but alcohol is worse.

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Unsplash / Michael Discenza

A research note published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF) found that, when adjusting for other factors, having a detectable amount of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) in your blood did not increase the risk of being involved in a car crash. Having a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.05%, on the other hand, increased that risk by 575%.

Still, combining the two appears to have the worst results.

“The risk from driving under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis is greater than the risk of driving under the influence of either alone,” the authors of a 2009 review wrote in the American Journal of Addiction.


Several studies link alcohol with violence, particularly at home. That has not been found for cannabis.

It’s impossible to say whether drinking alcohol or using marijuana causes violence, but several studies – including a recent analysis published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience – suggest a link between alcohol and violent behavior.

For a study published in January, researchers used fMRI scans to see how two alcoholic drinks impacts brain function in 50 healthy adult males. Compared with sober participants, the intoxicated volunteers were found to have reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked with moderating social behavior. That reduced functioning was also linked with aggressive behavior.

The finding aligns with some previous research on alcohol’s connections with violence. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes, and a study of college students found that the rates of mental and physical abuse were higher on days when couples drank.

On the other hand, no such relationship appears to exist for cannabis. A recent study looking at cannabis use and intimate partner violence in the first decade of marriage found that marijuana users were significantly less likely to commit violence against a partner than those who did not use the drug.


Both drugs negatively affect your memory — but in different ways. These effects are the most common in heavy, frequent, or binge users.

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Kristoffer Trolle/flickr

Both weed and alcohol temporarily impair memory, and alcohol can cause blackouts by rendering the brain incapable of forming memories. The most severe long-term effects are seen in heavy, chronic, or binge users who begin using in their teens.

Studies have found that these effects can persist for several weeks after stopping marijuana use. There may also be a link between daily weed use and poorer verbal memory in adults who start smoking at a young age.

Chronic drinkers display reductions in memory, attention, and planning, as well as impaired emotional processes and social cognition – and these can persist even after years of abstinence.


Both drugs are linked with an increased risk of psychiatric disease. For weed users, psychosis and schizophrenia are the main concern; with booze, it’s depression and anxiety.

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iStock

The largest review of marijuana studies found substantial evidence of an increased risk among frequent marijuana users of developing schizophrenia – something that studies have shown is a particular concern for people already at risk.

Weed can also trigger temporary feelings of paranoia and hostility, but it’s not yet clear whether those symptoms are linked with an increased risk of long-term psychosis.

On the other hand, self-harm and suicide are much more common among people who binge drink or drink frequently. But scientists have had a hard time deciphering whether excessive alcohol use causes depression and anxiety or whether people with depression and anxiety drink in an attempt to relieve those symptoms.


Alcohol appears to be linked more closely with weight gain, despite weed’s tendency to trigger the munchies.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Weed gives you the munchies. It makes you hungry, reduces the natural signals of fullness, and may even temporarily make food taste better.

But despite eating over 600 extra calories when smoking, marijuana users generally don’t have higher body-mass indexes. In fact, studies suggest that regular smokers have a slightly reduced risk of obesity.

Alcohol, on the other hand, appears to be linked with weight gain. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that people who drank heavily had a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese. Plus, alcohol itself is caloric: A can of beer has roughly 150 calories, and a glass of wine has about 120.


All things considered, alcohol’s effects seem markedly more extreme — and riskier — than marijuana’s.

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iStock

When it comes to addiction profiles and risk of death or overdose combined with ties to cancer, car crashes, violence, and obesity, the research suggests that marijuana may be less of a health risk than alcohol.

Still, because of marijuana’s largely illegal status, long-term studies on all its health effects have been limited – meaning more research is needed.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

As anyone who has drunk a cup of coffee knows, not all drugs are equally harmful. Caffeine, the most widely consumed psychoactive drug on earth, is not a danger to human health.

To give people an idea of the most dangerous substances, a team of psychiatrists, chemists, and pharmacologists at the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists systematically ranked them based on three factors: how much physical harm they cause, how addictive they are, and how much damage they do to society as a whole, judging by things like costs spent on healthcare. They published their findings in the medical journal The Lancet.

Here are the drugs that rank highest for dependency:


To assess the danger of each drug, the scientists looked at three types of effects.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

The following ranking focuses on dependency. The researchers further broke this category down into three factors that determine how addictive something is.

1. Pleasure, the euphoria a user feels on the drug; psychological dependence

2. The cravings a user experiences when the drug is withdrawn

3. Physical dependence, the headaches or other physical symptoms a user experiences when the drug is withdrawn


1. Heroin ranked the highest on the list in terms of dependency.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

The drug received a full three out of three in terms of pleasure, cravings, and physical dependence.


2. Cocaine received a three out of three in terms of pleasure.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

However, it was deemed to be slightly less psychologically addictive than heroin and about half as physically addictive.


3. In terms of psychological addictiveness, nicotine was ranked as almost as addictive as cocaine.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Nicotine received a 2.6 out of 3 compared to cocaine’s 2.8. But it was also deemed less pleasurable and far less physically addictive.


4. Barbiturates are sedative drugs that were once widely prescribed for anxiety.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

This category includes brand-name drugs like Amobarbital and Thiopental. Barbiturates got a two out of three for overall dependency – they were ranked as less pleasurable and less physiologically and physically addictive than nicotine, heroin, and cocaine.


5. Alcohol was deemed less psychologically addictive than tobacco.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Alcohol and tobacco were ranked equally in terms of the “pleasure” aspect of their addictiveness, however, receiving a 2.3 out of 3. Alcohol and tobacco also had a similar physical dependence ranking overall.