With Drug Abuse Up: "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us"

The shocking increase in all drug use by Americans age 12 and older reported by the government today threatens the health and safety of every child and family in this nation.

Now is not the time to point fingers. Now is the time for all of us to look in the mirror: the President, political leaders, professionals in medicine and public health, and parents, and begin to deal with this scourge head on.

The greatest decline in drug use in this nation occurred during the 1980s when Nancy Reagan led a campaign to "just say no," a message that resonated with the nation and brought drug use to its lowest point in the last 40 years. Drug abuse and addiction is the nation's deadliest disease, killing almost half a million people each year and destroying the lives of millions of families and friends. With this morning's report, we are more than half way back to the highest drug use this nation has ever experienced.

In order to eradicate this epidemic -- which shatters more lives and livelihoods than any other disease -- the public health and medical professions must mount the kind of campaign they did to combat smoking and AIDS. In a matter of a few years, their efforts changed America's opinion of AIDS as a social curse to recognition that it was a dangerous disease needing research and medical attention to cure it.

It took many years more, but beginning in 1978, the government and the public health professionals got Americans to understand that smoking was an addictive disease and were able to change the culture from an individual saying, "Would you like a cigarette?" to "Do you mind if I smoke?" and the rest of us readily replied, "You bet we do."

So instead of pointing fingers -- Republicans and Democrats at each other, parents at schools, schools at parents, public health professionals at the media -- let's all of us come together and mount the kind of national health effort against the disease of addiction that we have successfully done with smoking and AIDS and are now starting with obesity.

If we don't, we will continue condemning millions of our children and families to lives filled with tragedy, illness and death.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Founder and Chair of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration.