During a lecture at UC Davis Medical School on Monday, Adams took sometime to talk about what he sees as the biggest health crisis in America right now: stigma. In particular, the public sentiments around addiction and drug use cause huge barriers that often mean people don't get the medical attention they need.
"Folks often ask me what the biggest killer is out there, what I'm most concerned about: Is it obesity? Is it smoking?" Adams said. "I think the biggest killer out there is stigma. Stigma keeps people in the shadows. Stigma keeps people from coming forward and asking for help. Stigma keeps families from admitting that there is a problem."
As Adams explained, addiction and substance abuse isn't a matter of moral failure - it should be looked at the same way as any other public health issue.
"We need to help folks understand that it's not bad families that it happens to," Adams said. "My family raised the surgeon general of the United States.... They also raised my brother who is now in prison, still with untreated substance use disorder."
Not only are people like his brother not getting the help they need while in prison, said Adams, but incarceration also comes at a huge cost to taxpayers. His brother's ten year sentence will cost somewhere between half a million and one million dollars. On the other hand, treatment for his substance abuse issues would have cost less than $6,000.
And the issue of addiction and substance abuse is only getting worse, said Adams. These days carrying the opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone is more important than knowing CPR.
"The chances are greater that someone is going to come in that door at the back of the room and say, 'Someone's overdosing in the bathroom down the hall,' than they are that someone is going to come and say they need one of you to administer CPR. That's just the truth."
Those stigmas apply to opioids as well as other controversial substances like cannabis. Recent studies have shown that cannabis can help people overcome addiction, yet physicians and medical experts are often hesitant to recommend medical marijuana due to stigmas stemming from the War on Drugs. But with the majority of 2020 presidential candidates supporting some sort of cannabis reform, perceptions of cannabis are slowly but surely starting to change. Unfortunately, for the 130 people who die of opioid overdoses every day, that change is too little, too late.