Public health officials, building on a push to treat people who abuse opioids with medications, want physicians to consider using medications to treat alcohol addiction. The drugs can be used in addition to or sometimes in place of peer-support programs, they say.
“We want people to understand we think AA is wonderful, but there are other options,” says George Koob, director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a part of the federal National Institutes of Health.
It is still rare for a person struggling with alcohol to hear that medication therapy exists. This partly reflects the tradition of treating addiction through 12-step programs. It’s also a byproduct of limited promotion by the drugs’ manufacturers and confusion among doctors about how to use them.
A key study funded by the federal government reported last year that only 20 percent people who abuse alcohol will ever receive any form of treatment, which ranges from a seeing a counselor or doctor to entering a specialized treatment program.
The same is true for opioid addiction — about 80 percent of people dependent on opioids will never receive treatment.
The NIAAA, in an effort to give patients and doctors more choices, has launched programs to develop medications and support drug trials. NIAAA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also asked a panel of outside experts to report on drug options.
“Current evidence shows that medications are underused in the treatment of alcohol-use disorder, including alcohol abuse and dependence,” the panel reported last summer. It noted that although public health officials and the American Medical Association say alcohol dependence is a medical problem, there continues to be “considerable resistance” among doctors to this approach.