Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly
Volume 23 Number 33
August 29, 2011
ASAM admits error in omitting NIAAA in definition publicity
In announcing its new broader definition of addiction to include non-substance addictions such as sex and gambling (see ADAW, August 22), the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) made an almost fatal error. It treated alcohol like an afterthought and pointedly omitted any mention of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) while suggesting — incorrectly, as it turns out — that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) was involved in crafting the definition, ADAW has learned.
ASAM past president Michael Miller, M.D., told ADAW last week that nobody from NIDA was involved officially in the process leading to release of the definition. “The press release did not state things in a clear manner and clearly led people to believe that we had some kind of formal connection with NIDA,” Miller said.
It strains belief for some leaders, however, to think that ASAM physicians were not aware of the bitter struggle between NIDA and NIAAA
researchers over the upcoming merger of the institutes, which will create a new, single institute of addiction — a merger NIDA supported
and NIAAA opposed. NIAAA officials were furious when the definition — and the press release — came out, published August 15 on the ASAM website.
“We recognize that ASAM is extremely important to physicians who are specializing in substance use disorders,” said Howard B. Moss, M.D., associate director for clinical and translational research at NIAAA. “But we are concerned that the narrow definitional focus on neuroscience
doesn’t really address the psychological and sociocultural aspects of addiction,” he told ADAW. “We view it as reductionist.”
Moss also said the timing of the definition’s release was awkward, since the DSM-5 process is taking place at the same time. “DSM will
have definitions that will be discussed in the diagnostic criteria,” he said. And finally, calling addiction a disease is hardly new.
NIAAA is also very concerned about binge drinking, underage alcohol use, and drinking and driving — problems that aren’t necessarily facets
of addictive disorders, said Moss.
“We met with NIAAA to explain to them how sorry we are that we did not vet this with them more officially,” ASAM’s Miller said. “They
are at least embarrassed and extremely disappointed because they were blindsided with people coming to them with questions about
things they haven’t even seen.”
When we talked to Miller last week, no decision had yet been made about whether ASAM would publicize a correction about NIDA/
NIAAA involvement. But, he said, “We have apologized to NIAAA very publicly.”
NIAAA is “not aware of any public apology,” according to a NIAAA press officer.
Miller blamed some of the “lack of sensitivity” to the fact that ASAM has a new CEO and a new staffer in charge of communications. “ASAM
has learned through this process that it must be much more sensitive to these delicate differences of the two institutes, and that so many
people are looking for messages in the tea leaves that may not be there.”
ASAM has “no official position” on the proposed merger of the institutes, said Miller.
Sources at NIAAA said people there are “absolutely furious.” They believe that ASAM is saying — just as the pro-merger researchers had
said — that all neurochemical pathways to addiction are the same. In fact, they say, alcohol is not the same — it goes everywhere in the
brain. There is no alcohol receptor, said Moss.
Not diagnostic criteria
The ASAM definition is just that — it is not diagnostic criteria, and it can’t be used for diagnosis, said Miller. That is the province of the
American Psychiatric Association (APA), which field-tests its criteria.
ASAM really wanted to update its definition because the organization had two different definitions out there — one that applies only to alcoholism
and that dates back to 1990, and one for addiction that was created in 2001 in collaboration with the American Pain Society, Miller said. “These two did not align, there were subtle differences,” he said. So the new definition eliminated the old definition of alcoholism and added various “process” addictions.
“We did get some cautionary advice from different quarters,” said Miller. For example, alcoholism researcher Carlton Erickson “blasted the whole project,” said Miller. Erickson suggested not to talk about spirituality or non-substance addictions, but to “stick to what is known,” recalled Miller. But in general there was consensus, he said.
“Most clinicians said this makes sense, and the board of directors of ASAM unanimously approved it,” said Miller.