Treating Alcoholism as a Chronic Disease

Alcoholism is a diagnosable disease similar to other chronic, relapsing conditions such as asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. All of these illnesses:

  • Have strong genetic and behavioral components
  • Can be identified with reliable diagnostic methods
  • Can be effectively managed with behavior change and medication
  • Show similar patterns of symptom control and relapse

Yet we continue to deal with alcoholism as a social problem more often than as a health issue, primarily because of the stigma, or social disapproval, that accompanies addiction to any drug.

As a result, too few people get the treatment they need. This drives up alcohol-related health care costs, disrupts families, cuts productivity in the workplace and threatens the safety of our communities.

Recent advances in neuroscience have enabled researchers to uncover the biological roots of alcoholism and study how changes in brain chemistry can lead to addiction.

These advances also have led to the development of new medications to treat alcoholism. This means that physicians can prescribe medication in addition to behavior change to manage alcoholism, just as they routinely do for asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure.

The strong case for treating alcoholism as a chronic disease builds on a great deal of evidence:

  • Numerous points of comparison among alcohol-related problems, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure;
  • Genetics and behavior increase the risk for developing alcoholism;
  • Alcohol is a drug that affects people differently;
  • The direct effect of alcohol on brain chemistry;
  • New medications for treating alcoholism reduce craving for the drug;
  • Treating alcoholism as an acute illness has negatively influenced perceptions about treatment; and
  • Stigma has led to inequities in the health care system that make treatment for alcoholism less accessible than that for other chronic diseases.
  • The primer concludes with straightforward steps that employers, policy makers, health care professionals and individuals can take to ensure that alcoholism is treated as a chronic disease.

Treating Alcoholism as a Chronic Disease was developed in consultation with David Lewis, MD, founder of Brown University’s Center on Alcohol and Addiction Studies. It is available on-line at

Alcoholism Myths and Realities: Removing the Stigma of Society’s most Destructive Disease