Big Nicotine, Part II: Addiction and the “Cult of Pharmacology”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.

Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”

But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use.Read More »

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Addiction, History and Historians: Ron Roizen’s Response to Courtwright’s Reply

Editor’s Note:  Let’s face it–there was an awful lot to chew on in the recent roundtable on David Courtwright’s essay.  A private exchange between Ron Roizen and David Courtwright has led, with David’s encouragement, to Ron organizing his thoughts as a follow up to David’s reply to our series of commenters.

Nothing Good on, Again.

In a series of recent papers historian David Courtwright has managed to put together some excellent sociology-of-drug-science analyses.(1)  For this he well deserves our congratulations and thanks. Yet, I have reservations about the reply David recently offered to his Points’ commenters.

There’s an echo of Kuhn’s concept of “normal science” in David’s reply – particularly in his optimistic view that future research focused by the “NIDA paradigm” will serve to invite new studies at increasingly complex and interesting levels of inquiry, thus giving rise to new knowledge that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.  The main thrust of David’s reply is that a happy co-existence is possible between NIDA’s reductionist paradigm and the anti-reductionist inclinations of many historians and social scientists.  We in the “softer sciences,” David suggests, should, where appropriate, make use of the brain disease paradigm’s benefits and then turn to our own disciplinary tool kits when our inquiries require them.

I balk at this position for a number of reasons.  First, there is the question of consistency in David’s argument.  I was so taken by the following passage in David’s Addiction article that I fired off the full quotation, via email, to Stanton Peele:Read More »