The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) newly defined addiction as a chronic brain disorder, rather than a behavioral problem involving alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex.
The definition was reached after consultations with over 80 experts over the past four years.
"Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry," said ASAM in a statement. It is not the result of emotional or psychiatric problems, but hijacks the brain's reward system, involving areas of memory and emotion, and stifles areas of executive functioning such as impulse control, according to the statement.
The memory of previous exposures to rewards leads to a biological and behavioral response to external cues, triggering craving and/or engagement in addictive behaviors.
"At its core, addiction isn't just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It's a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas," said Dr Michael Miller, former president of ASAM who oversaw the development of the new definition.
Since addiction is a chronic disease, it should be treated, managed and monitored over a long period of time, accompanied by psychosocial rehabilitation along with pharmacological management.
According to Dr Raju Hajela, chair of the ASAM committee on this issue, addiction is not a choice but rather the disease is manifested through behaviors as a result.
"The disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them," said Hajela.
Choices, however, can be made in actively seeking recovery rather than continuing in unhealthy behaviors.
"Many chronic diseases require behavioral choices, such as people with heart disease choosing to eat healthier or begin exercising, in addition to medical or surgical interventions," stated Miller.
"We have to stop moralizing, blaming, controlling, or smirking at the person with the disease of addiction, and start creating opportunities for individuals and families to get help and providing assistance in choosing proper treatment."
Among other factors contributing to addiction, ASAM included its spiritual manifestation, describing it as "distortions in a person's connection with self, with others and with the transcendent (referred to as God by many, the Higher Power by 12-steps groups, or higher consciousness by others)."