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Associated Press Revises Story to Fix Addiction Error
August 8, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
But only in headline, rest of article still misses the point

On Sunday, I was all set to write about how the press continues to misunderstand addiction, prompted by an Associated Press (AP) story headlined “Antidepressants prove addictive to some.”

The article detailed how some patients have difficulty stopping antidepressants due to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. It said “drug companies insist antidepressants can't cause withdrawal because they are not technically addictive,” and described the language used instead: “antidepressant discontinuation syndrome.”

But on Monday —  perhaps because the AP recognized that press critics might pounce — the story was instead headlined, “Some say quitting antidepressants daunting.”

Despite the revision, the article still didn’t explain why antidepressant withdrawal syndromes — or whatever you want to call them — do not make these drugs automatically “addictive.” So I will, because readers will never understand what addiction is and what it isn’t until the press starts explaining it properly.

Addiction is defined by medicine as compulsive use of a substance despite negative consequences. While withdrawal symptoms are part of some addictions, some of the most addictive drugs — cocaine, for example — do not produce physical symptoms of withdrawal. Cocaine withdrawal might make you unhappy and anxious, but unlike heroin withdrawal, it won’t make you vomit or have diarrhea.

Further, some drugs that do not produce addiction — some medications used to treat high blood pressure, for example — can produce potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms but are not addictive. No one runs out to rob pharmacies to get these medications, nor do people crave them, and that’s because they don’t produce a psychological sense that being without the drug will be problematic.

In essence, withdrawal is neither necessary nor sufficient to define addiction.

Because physicians originally believed that addiction was an attempt by addicts to avoid withdrawal, many people mistaken continue to believe that if something produces withdrawal, it must be addictive. It’s nice to see that the AP now recognizes this and is correcting its headlines; but it should be explicit about what addiction means and what it doesn’t in the articles it publishes.