Are we really interested in fighting addiction, or are we actually in the business of creating addiction? Psychiatric drugs — which are universally prescribed for children — have become the largest source of abuse and addiction. Recently, Florida's drug czar announced that prescription drugs now cause more deaths than illicit drugs.

Further Reading

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 22, 2005

Combating the Addictogenic Culture

Stanton Peele


We live in an era that creates addiction, which our culture chooses to regard as a disease. Yet, under lying the remarkable and never-decreasing incidence of compulsive, self-destructive behavior, is our addictogenic culture. That is, our culture in its most basic elements encourages addiction. To understand this is to take a powerful step towards improving the emotional health of our children and ourselves. Yet, it is in the nature of such basic cultural patterns that it is difficult to separate ourselves sufficiently to perceive how our culture shapes us.

To see how wrong-headed is our approach to addiction, consider that a popular recent topic in the drug treatment world has been immunization against addiction. Those who have shown susceptibility to drug use might be thus immunized – or else, considering that majorities of high school youths who will eventually experiment with drugs and, certainly, alcohol – all youths might be vaccinated.

What does immunization for drug abuse look like? National Institute on Drug Abuse researchers have formulated a compound that reduces the amount of cocaine that enters the brains of rats. Presumably, those who are thus vaccinated will become immune to the stimulant effects of the drug.

However, could these same individuals turn to amphetamines (including crystal meth), or simply cigarettes, for stimulant effects? Or might they rely on Ritalin – a stimulant prescribed for children with attention deficit disor der (ADD) and hyperactivity? Or could they become addicted to something that many children now spend a great deal of time on – video games?

Of course, stimulant drugs are only one variety of substances to which people could become addicted, and to which kids can turn. Marijuana is now a popular object of concern – and alcohol affects many more children than all illicit drugs combined.

But there are other, legal drugs that children might learn to rely on – and that our entire culture has increasingly become dependent on. The chief of these is antidepressants. That is, the World Health Organization has characterized antidepressant drugs as addictive, since they produce withdrawal effects. Yet, more and more Americans rely on antidepressants. At the same time, kids are the fastest-growing segment of the antidepressant market.

Despite the advent of antidepressants, depression in our society is not abating, and is especially evident among the young. Why are more people dissatisfied with their lives, and feeling insufficient to cope with the demands on them – or that the emotional rewards they receive are not adequate. As I have described in books from Love and Addiction to 7 Tools To Beat Addiction, addiction is a search for gratification that is not otherwise available to people.

Where does addiction stem from and how does it manifest itself? What if children are becoming more predisposed to addiction due to the very nature of their lives in America, leading to successively more addicted generations of Americans? For example, if addiction is a fundamentally dependent way of relating to life, might young people who have less independent exposure to the world be more likely to seek other forms of addiction?

In the end, it is not exposure to this substance or that, prescribed medicine or street drug, that causes addiction. It is failure to engage in the world, to believe in one’s competence and ultimate chance for success, and to care enough for people, things, and oneself to eschew self-destructive behavior.

In other words, if children feel incapable of exploring and coping with their own worlds; if their experiences are constantly monitored and mediated by adults; if their primary activities involve passive consumption of media – might they become susceptible to any of a range of addictions? And then they may find a wide variety of objects for their addictive urges – cocaine, or other stimulant drugs, or other illicit drugs, or other drugs (prescribed as well as illicit), or other powerful, absorbing experiences.

In Love and Addiction, I wrote with my colleague Archie Brodsky, “Addiction is not an abnormality in our society. It is not an aberration from the norm; it is itself the norm.” While we warn children constantly about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, we may at the same time actually be prompting them to become addicted and to abuse substances, from prescribed medications to food (the Surgeon General has identified rapidly growing childhood overweight and obesity as America’s number one public health problem).

But, as we noted in Love and Addiction, addictive urges can permeate and determine all of our activities, involvements, and relationships. If we do not find our lives sufficiently engaging, then we can find addiction in any direction that we turn. And we will.


Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D., is a psychologist and attorney who had written about addiction over four decades. He is the author of Love and Addiction, Diseasing of America, The Meaning of Addiction, The Truth About Addiction and Recovery and, in 2004, 7 Tools To Beat Addiction. His distinctive approach to addiction contradicts the growing trend in our society towards labeling addictive behavior, in all of its manifestations, as a disease.