Medicine or Vacation? Selling addiction treatment, circa last century

If, like me, you’ve spent the past several years studying the history of addiction treatment, then you might know why I can’t look at beachy treatment ads—they tend to resemble the image below— without thinking about the work of William L. White, the prolific addiction professional and historian.

Addiction Ends in Malibu
Addiction Ends in Malibu?

White’s book, Slaying the Dragon, is a canonical text on the history of addiction treatment in the United States. While Slaying was written to give addiction professionals a sense of their own history, the book is also an essential starting point for any scholar who first approaches the subject. Early on, White describes the “rise and fall of inebriate homes and asylums.” At the turn of the twentieth century, White writes, “a national network of addiction treatment programs was born, was professionalized, and then disappeared—all within the span of a few decades.” In his analysis of the dissolution of the early addiction treatment industry, White finds parallels with the precarious position of treatment providers today: a motley of institutional models for addiction treatment, conflicting professional interpretations regarding the nature of addiction, and unreliable political support.

One parallel is evident in contemporary treatment ads. While a combination of forces led to the decline of treatment centers a little less than a century ago, one of the most salient factors, it seems to me, was the economics of Gilded Age addiction treatment. Despite significant changes in theories of addiction, drug policy, and treatment trends over the course of the last century, the pitch for ritzy, private treatment centers has remained remarkably faithful to its early rhetoric.

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