Q: Is Addiction a Brain Disease or a Moral Failing? A: Neither

Nick Heather

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)
19 Downloads (Pure)


This article uses Marc Lewis’ work as a springboard to discuss the socio-political context of the brain disease model of addiction (BDMA). The claim that promotion of the BDMA is the only way the general public can be persuaded to withhold blame and punishment from addicts is critically examined. After a discussion of public understandings of the disease concept of addiction, it is pointed out that it is possible to develop a scientific account of addiction which is neither a disease nor a moral model but which the public could understand. Evidence is reviewed to suggest that public acceptance of the disease concept is largely lip-service and that the claim the BDMA removes stigma among the public and professionals is unsupported by evidence. Further, there is good evidence that biogenetic explanations of mental/behavioural disorders in general have been counterproductive in the attempt to ally stigma. A model of addiction as a disorder of choice may attract special problems in public-facing communications and risks being misunderstood. However, ways of presenting this model to the public are suggested that may avoid such risks. Lastly, the claim that the BDMA is the only way of ensuring access to treatment and of maintaining research funding for addiction is disputed and a way in which these benefits can be retained under a disorder-of-choice model proposed. The article concludes by enthusiastically endorsing Lewis’ call for a third stage in the governing image of addiction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-124
Issue number1
Early online date18 May 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 May 2017


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