Addiction industries exploit human frailty

6 minute read

Allowing the large-scale plundering of citizens’ vulnerabilities makes governments complicit in the social harms that result.

Evolution does not pursue a specific goal; it is a consequence that reflects the successes or otherwise of random chance mutations – a complex and fascinating process that has produced us as a community of individuals with a diverse range of personalities, behaviours and vulnerabilities.

While some of our traits may seem less advantageous, the fact that they have persisted and are found in a variety of species means that they do produce benefits, at least for some of the time and for some individuals, and/or the group in which they live.

One of the phenomena that is not unique to humans, and often causes us significant difficulties, is our propensity for dependency and addiction to substances and behaviours. Many of those of us who enjoy an occasional glass of wine will find it easy to understand that elephants and lorikeets would also enjoy the consequences of consuming alcohol produced by fermenting fruit and flowers.

And what of the other dependencies by which we degrade our lives and those of our families – the flashing lights of the pokies, the thrill of danger, and the illusory wins of long-term gambling? Novelty-seeking behaviour is also genetically driven and seems to offer a survival advantage in an unstable world (here, here and here).

It is estimated that 40%-60% of our individual susceptibility to the phenomena of addiction and dependence is determined by our genes and their complex interactions. The biochemistry and physiology of substance addiction interacts with brain activity more commonly associated with psychology and behavioural dependencies such as compulsive shopping, gaming, gambling and addiction to porn.

Another trait that has been important for our success is the pursuit of self-interest, the evolutionary benefits of which are self-evident. However, for social organisms like humans and orcas, the pursuit of novelty and personal self-interest must be balanced by the need to achieve the benefits of cooperation. For the entirety of our existence until just a few thousand years ago we lived in small and often vulnerable co-dependent groups where evolutionary success was founded in our ability to collaborate within strict behavioural boundaries that constrained hierarchy and inequality.

Over recent times, since we have come to live in very large communities, we have lost some perspective on the benefits of collaboration across the whole community and have loosened the behavioural norms that limited inequality. The consequence has been an increased willingness to take advantage our fellow citizens for personal gain, particularly by exploiting their vulnerabilities.

Whatever the deep-seated reasons for our propensity to dependence, these traits are reliably entrenched in a significant proportion of the population and can deliver a rich harvest. In spite of the widespread harms, the capture of susceptible people has come to comprise a significant proportion of Australia’s economic activity.

Drug manufacturers (legal and illicit), cigarette and vape manufacturers, and bookmakers and casinos (and their shareholders) have been lured by the opportunity of profit and devote significant effort and resources to finding the most effective ways of nurturing dependency. These include the design of the drugs and the stimuli themselves, their marketing, and engagement with the community in ways that legitimise their activities.

Their donations have captured political parties, and governments have become dependent on the tax revenue. Businesses focused on profit, from media giants to sporting codes and corner stores, have nurtured their distribution networks founded on dependency and addiction. They seem wilfully blind to any sense of a moral compass that would have them sensitive to the harm that they cause to their customers, and to the fabric of their community as a whole.

This business model is the same across dealers of heroin and other illicit drugs who give out free samples, the cigarette companies that promote of vapes to children, the on-line bookmakers that send emails to those trying to escape their addiction, and the promotion and pubs, clubs and drinks manufacturers that glamourise alcohol consumption.

They all have the simple goal of nurturing long-term dependency in vulnerable people so as to extract a revenue stream for as long as possible. The outcomes are the same – poverty, neglect of children including malnutrition, domestic violence, and death, whether caused directly, accidentally or from disease or suicide – irrespective of the nature of the dependency.

While the recycling of taxes raised on legal addictive activities might provide some financial support to those subjugated by exploitative dependency, the social sequelae are not so easily remedied by money. Governments that allow their obligations to the wellbeing of their community to be swayed by lobbying, political donations and threats are complicit in the consequences for public health.

We humans are complex creatures. In the end it is hard for us not to pursue our own self-interest. We can settle easily into a comfortable niche, while choosing to ignore tumult in the world around us. While contemplating this topic, I was reminded of an encounter many years ago with a fish we caught while I was volunteering as a field assistant on a research trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. The fish had a large sea louse living inside its mouth. The juvenile female louse enters the fish through the gills and attaches itself to the fish’s tongue before blocking the fish’s lingual arteries, causing the tongue, but not the fish, to die. The louse settles in to the role of tongue where it makes a living by taking a tithe of the fish’s blood and mucous, and reproducing with its male mate who takes up a place lodged in the fish’s gill arches. The fish is diminished by the burden of providing sustenance to the louse which remains in place for the remainder of the fish’s life (here). A metaphor?

Perhaps as a community we need a rethink. How might we restore the balance between the benefits that derive from the pursuit of both individual self-interest and the community collaboration on which we are totally dependent? I cannot believe that allowing the large-scale exploitation of the vulnerabilities of our fellow citizens as core business will end well.

Dr Will Cairns OAM is a consultant emeritus in palliative medicine at Townsville University Hospital and an associate professor at James Cook University.

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