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Getting Real About Addiction—Finally

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

The U.S. Surgeon General released a remarkable report yesterday, entitled Facing Addiction in America. It’s hard to believe that this is that office’s first-ever comprehensive study of substance misuse in the U.S.—but what the government lacks in response time it has made up for in thoroughness. The report is powerful, candid, and surprisingly well written. (I read about 200 pages of it last night, though admittedly a good chunk was in the form of tables.)

In case it wasn’t obvious from the headlines greeting us everyday: “The United States has a serious substance misuse problem.” And that misuse—66.7 million Americans acknowledge binge drinking in the past month; more than 27 million Americans currently use illicit drugs or misuse prescription meds like painkillers—has a profound cost for the nation. But the SG’s report doesn’t just make a definitive case about the reality and stakes of the crisis, it offers a smart and sober plan forward.



Technology plays a big role in that. Chapter 4 of the report, which delves into tools that are available for early intervention and treatment—has a good (but too brief) section on how emerging technologies, from telemedicine to web-based cognitive behavioral training, can offer inexpensive and timely help for millions.

To the extent that these new approaches catch on, you can thank in large part a slew of new entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists backing them. In recent months, several innovative startups have launched with the aim of convincing potential customers that they need to change their own destructive behaviors (in theory—one would think—not an easy sell). Michael Laskoff’s new digital health offering, Annum Health—which provides a new home-based treatment platform for heavy drinkers—recently raised $5 million in funding. Former Wall Streeter Lauren Stahl has set up Sparkite, an “aftercare platform” built specifically for mobile devices which she calls “addiction support in the pocket.” Pear Therapeutics says it’s “the first prescription digital therapy designed to treat opiate dependence.” And Venrock-backed Lyra Health, cofounded by former Facebook and Genentech CFO David Ebersman, works with employers and insurance providers to coordinate care (and improve outcomes) for employees with regard to behavioral health issues. You can also throw into the mix Workit Health, myStrength, and the Rock Health-backed Lantern, which received a $4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Private insurers are becoming much more aggressive about trying to stem this epidemic as well—see, for example, my colleague Sy Mukherjee’s write-up of Cigna’s efforts on this front.

The Surgeon General calls our response to this public health crisis “a moral test for America.” He is right.