The National Rifle Association (NRA) has a popular saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” They like to put this saying on bumper stickers so that people are reminded about a fundamental difference between guns and the people who use them to harm others. Gun control advocates do not like this saying because it takes away from the legitimacy of what they want to do, which is to remove guns from society. Gun opponents believe that the more guns that are removed from society the less violence there will be. The NRA makes the following reply, “If guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have guns.”
Setting aside for a moment the issue of whether we ought to force people to give up their guns, notice how similar the argument is to the present discussion. Gun control advocates see the guns as the source of violence while the NRA sees bad behavior as the source. Although I am not a big fan of guns, I must admit that the NRA has the more sensible argument.
Killing people is a behavior. While guns are neither good nor evil, people can use them in evil and irresponsible ways. On the other hand, no one would deny the legitimate use of guns by police and military, and few would deny the use of guns for hunting and self-protection. So, the argument of gun opponents tends to focus on the guns rather than the behavior. The idea is that if we can just get rid of guns we can stop violence. This assumes, of course, that people will not resort to other methods of hurting one another.
In a similar way, discussions concerning addiction tend to focus on the object of the addiction rather than the behavior. If the addiction involves drugs, then an assumption is often made that drugs have the power to force people to consume them. This seems to be the position our society has taken toward drugs; that is, we have a war on drugs rather than on behavior. Further evidence of this is the banning and criminalization of certain drugs in society. To focus on the legality, availability, and chemical properties of drugs avoids addressing the importance of behavior and the reasons why people choose to use drugs. To focus on drugs instead of behavior can give the impression that people cannot control their behavior, which is a hindrance to recovery.
Drugs do not cause addiction, people cause addiction. Neither the legalization nor criminalization of drugs prevents certain people from following the path of drug addiction. If certain drugs are not available, they find substitutes, or engage in addictive behaviors that do not involve drugs.
Video poker is said to be the most addictive slot machine game in casinos. This game is supposed to have mysterious powers that cause some people to lose control of their gambling. Video poker, however, is neither good nor evil—it is only a game, and if this game were banned, these people would find some other game to play. Video poker has no special powers and it does not cause addiction. Addiction is a behavior and video poker is a game of chance.
Others explain this behavior by arguing that people who lose a lot of money playing video poker must be sick with a so-called gambling disease. It is argued that this game takes advantage of a genetic or mental defect that prevents some people from controlling their behavior. Even if it can be shown that the brainwaves of those who enjoy gambling are different from the brainwaves of those who do not, this does not prove that a game causes involuntary behavior in people. Instead, people gamble and play games because they find it pleasurable.
For a variety of reasons, some people choose the immediate gratification of gambling despite the long-term negative consequences that this activity can bring. But why would someone do something that is so damaging in the long-term? The answer would be similar to that given for other self-destructive behaviors in which people engage. Perhaps they choose not to think about it, or they engage in self-deception about what they are doing. They may seek a way to escape their current unpleasant environment, or they seek to change the way they view themselves, or all of the above.
I once counseled with a man who was grossly overweight. He could walk only a few steps and required a wheelchair for mobility. His weight caused or aggravated many serious health problems, including diabetes. I tried to help him see that it would be in his own interest to lose some weight, but he rejected this option. He argued, “It is impossible for me to lose weight. You see, I have a terrible disease and I cannot control my eating.” He was convinced he was completely helpless in the matter, and so he accepted the fact that he would continue to have ill health and die an early death. This attitude was unfortunate because there was much that he could have done to lose weight and improve the quality and longevity of his life. However, because this man believed he had a disease, he had given up on improving his condition. A better response would have been, “I have a terrible disease called diabetes and I must find a way to control my eating habits so that I can better manage this disease.”
Some would argue that his unsuccessful efforts to control his eating was a disease since it is related to his diabetes. Others point out that this parallels the disease of alcoholism in that it contributes to cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease. It is true that chronic disease can be caused by many factors, including lifestyle choices. Make sure, however, that you do not confuse the cause of a disease with the disease itself. For some people, adult diabetes may be caused by eating habits or being overweight, but overeating is not a disease. Cirrhosis of the liver may be caused by drinking large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time, but drinking alcohol is a behavior and not a disease. Lung cancer can often be attributed to smoking cigarettes over many years, but smoking cigarettes is a behavior and not a disease.
J B Myers