Addiction Overview

Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.

What is drug addiction?  Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease—people in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug.

Illicit drug use in the United States has been increasing.  In 2014, an estimated 27 million Americans aged 12 or older—10.2 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug in the past month. This number is up from 9.4 percent in 2013.

Drug use is highest among people in their late teens and twenties.  In 2014, 22.2 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported using an illicit drug in the past month.  However, drug use is increasing among people in their fifties and early sixties. This increase is, in part, due to the aging of the baby boomers, whose rates of illicit drug use have historically been higher than those of previous generations.

In 2014, there were an estimated 66.9 million current cigarette smokers among Americans aged 12 or older.

In 2014, in the US.there were 1.5 million current cocaine users and 1.6 million current users of other stimulants aged 12 or older.

There continues to be a large “treatment gap” in this country. In 2014, an estimated 21.5 million Americans (8.1 percent of the US population) needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol, but only about 2.5 million people (0.9 percent) received treatment at a specialty facility.

There are 3 drugs approved by the FDA to treat tobacco use disorder:  nicotine replacement therapy, bupropion (Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®). The most effective of these results in approximately 22% abstinence after one year.

There are no drugs approved by the FDA to treat cocaine use disorder.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has taken a leading role in providing educational resources to patients and their families, and in advancing the research of new treatments. In addition, legislation to provide reimbursement for mental health disorders (including addictions) via the Mental Health Care Parity Act of 2008, and broadening insurance coverage via the Affordable Care Act, have expanded access to desperately needed care.

Embera is advancing a novel approach to treating addictions that we hope will provide new treatment options for patients and their families in the future.


1. – Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health