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Addressing Addiction

Addressing Addiction

By Sam Gutterman

Wow—my iPhone just told me that I only spent 4 hours and 47 minutes per day on my phone last week. At least that was a decrease of 5 percent over the previous week!

Am I addicted to my phone? As with most addicts, knowledge alone doesn’t mean that I can take the necessary action to curtail my addiction—nor that I even want to. (Maybe looking at my phone took the place of running, a prior habit that I really miss.)

But addiction to one’s phone or social media is not the worst kind. A so-called epidemic of addictions that includes everything from substance abuse and gambling to risky sexual behavior and alcoholism has taken hold of a large chunk of the United States. What we commonly call “addiction” could be a really difficult habit to overcome or a mental illness—and everything in between.

Drug addiction isn’t just expensive and socially destructive—it can also be life-threatening. Opioid addiction has been making the newsfeeds all too often. Related but different is the deadly use of methamphetamines, which has seen an exponential growth in the last two years. Each element in their supply chains (legal or illegal) attempts to extract financial advantage in spite of the risks involved.

What’s the harm in an extra donut in the morning or becoming a couch-potato Netflix devotee after working hours? Either can help lead to obesity, itself an epidemic.

I just finished a review of literature on the effects of alcohol on mortality. In moderation, alcohol use isn’t so bad. But in excess, especially in binges, your health can seriously suffer. My one glass of wine with dinner is probably OK, although for some health conditions (heart conditions other than myocardial infarctions), any drinking isn’t a good cardiovascular idea. Personally, I am willing to take such a risk as part of my personal risk management system. But in some cases and in extremes, it is not advisable.

Another powerful addiction is nicotine. Medical and actuarial literature has repeatedly shown smoking to represent a terrible personal health risk. Although it is life-threatening, the time lag between its enjoyment and most of its adverse consequences could seem so long, the unstoppable urge to smoke or vape may not seem worth fighting. Patches, gum, or vaping may be better than smoking but may not ultimately solve the underlying addiction problem.

But what can we do about bad habits or addiction once recognized? One idea might be to take a timeout, especially for those obsessions with only minor consequences. I unintentionally tried that approach, having forgotten to take my phone on a daylong trip—but as you can tell, I survived the trauma; the only aftereffect was the ton of emails I found unread that evening. Those with more serious addictions obviously have a harder time, especially over the long haul. However, proving to yourself that you can do it can be revealing; newsfeeds will continue whether you watch them or not, an alternative approach to pain management might work just as well.

Therapy or a support network might help if unassisted abstinence doesn’t work. Although relatives and good friends can help, an addict does not appreciate being lectured to. We cannot always be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers—professionals need to support this seemingly never-ending scourge.

Attacking a seriously adverse addiction can be really hard—especially if addiction is hardwired into your brain. I feel lucky that I have not been personally affected, although I have had friends and relatives who have experienced detrimental health effects and even death from all of the serious addictions mentioned.

I don’t pretend to understand all the personal traumas and challenges involved in serious addiction, although I observe its prevalence and morbidity and mortality effects. The risks are quite serious. We cannot ignore them—prevention and treatment need to be continually pursued in a holistic manner with care and humaneness. Both supply and demand aspects are important to address. Actuaries need to recognize these and related issues honestly and with integrity.


SAM GUTTERMAN, a member of the Academy and a fellow of the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society, retired after many years as a director and consulting actuary with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in Chicago.

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