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Obama: Addiction is a preventable disease

Nadia Kounang | 3/31/2016, 2 p.m.
Before an audience at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, President Barack Obama said he wasn't ...
President Barack Obama Emily Schultze

— Before an audience at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, President Barack Obama said he wasn't sure what it was that tipped his life away from addiction. "I wasn't always as responsible as I am today. In many ways I was lucky, because for whatever reason addiction didn't get it's claws on me ... except cigarettes," he said.

"Regardless how individuals get into theses situations. We don't know everything. There may be genetic components. Addictions may be different for different people. What we do know is there are steps that can be taken to get through addiction and get to the other side, and that is under-resourced."

The President came to Atlanta on the heels of announcing several initiatives earlier in the day to expand addiction treatment and access. He sat on a panel moderated by CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to discuss the ravaging opioid epidemic across the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 Americans die every day by overdosing on opioids, a family of drugs that includes legal pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, along with illicit drugs such as heroin.

On the panel with the President was Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, 35-year old Crystal Oertle of Shelby, Ohio, and 28-year old Justin Luke Riley, the president and CEO of Young People in Recovery. Oertle and Riley shared their personal journeys of recovery.

Oertle was 20 years old when she started using Vicodin recreationally. She said it went from there to other prescription drugs, and when those drugs were no longer available she turned to heroin. She would use while her children were at home. She has been in recovery for the past year.

The President said it would take hearing more stories like this to focus attention on the under-resourced crisis. "The public doesn't fully appreciate the scope of the problem," he said, which is why he came to Atlanta "It helps to provide a greater spotlight on how to solve this problem."

President Obama said that to fully understand and solve the issue of addiction and drug abuse, there needed to be a fundamental change in understanding of addiction as a preventable disease from law enforcement to doctors to the public.

Wen agreed, saying the current attitudes toward addiction and treatment were "unscientific, inhumane and frankly ineffective." They too frequently ended up criminalizing addiction, she added.