The history of addiction

By D&M Consultants

Like many phenomena, addiction as a concept and as an experience has been shaped by different historical and cultural influences. Our modern-day view of addiction is very different than a few hundred years ago.

Our interest in this blog is to understand why addiction has become stigmatised. We believe that if we can understand this process, we can also challenge the negative connotations of the work Language of Addiction.

15th Century

The development of global commerce during the age of exploration beginning in the 15th century led to a revolution in the availability of psychoactive substances in a way unimaginable prior to the discovery of the ‘new world’ (Courtwright, 2001). The main substances imported to the ‘old world’ were tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, opiates and sugar.

18th & 19th Century

Prior to the early modern period the excessive use of psychoactive substances was viewed as the ‘sin of gluttony’ (Warner, 1992). The massive social upheavals experienced in preindustrial Europe together with the breakdown of tradition social norms led to ‘inebriety’ being defined as a ‘moral-medical’ disease (Parssinen & Kerner, 1980).

20th Century

By the early twentieth century there was a cultural shift in the understanding of addiction as a biomedical illness. Addiction was medicalised by psychiatry and criminalised as narcotics control began in the US in the early twentieth century beginning with laws prohibiting opiates (Acker, 2002; Musto, 1999).

‘War on Drugs’

The stigma associated with the word addict has arisen under the prohibition approach to substances, as exemplified in the US and to a lesser extent Australia, in the ‘war on drugs’.

The prohibition of certain substances also has class and racial dimensions and yet outlawing a substance is always justified to the population in terms of their harmful potential to individuals (McGuffog, 2016). This is an interesting paradox when we consider that nicotine, followed by alcohol, are both legal and cause more harm than illicit drugs, but we digress.

See the Table below for a summary of the development of some of these ideas about addiction.

Some of the Key Models of Addiction

Moral Moral/Spiritual/Weakness Willpower, self-discipline, religion, virtuous lifestyle
Disease Medical condition, illness, physiological deficit, chronic, relapsing, neurological impact Abstinence/12-Step Medication (pharmacotherapies/vaccines)
Self-medication hypothesis Substances are used to manage one’s mental health symptoms Psychological therapies, Skills training, CBT

D&M’s Perspective

Here at D&M the model we adopt is a bio-psycho-social and spiritual one, as we believe that a holistic approach to recovery is critical to ensure a deeper level of healing. Our response is person centred, strengths-and values-based. If you want to find out more about our approach to recovery from addiction contact us here.

Specialised Addiction therapy is a complex process that should be facilitated by highly experienced professionals.

Contact us at D&M Consultancy for more information about our Addiction Services for individuals and families.


Acker, C. J. (2002). Creating the American Junkie : Addiction Research in the Classic Era of Narcotic Control Johns Hopkins University Press.

Courtwright, D. T. (2001). Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. Harvard University Press.

McGuffog, I. D. (2016). Drugs and crime in the United States. In R. Rycroft (Ed.), The American Middle Class: An Economic Encyclopedia of Progress and Poverty. . Greenwood:ABC-CLIO.

Musto, D. F. (1999). The American Disease: The Origins of Narcotics Control (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Parssinen, T. M., & Kerner, K. (1980). Development of the disease model of drug addiction in Britain, 1870-1926. Medical History, 24(3), 275-296.

Warner, J. (1992). Before there was “alcoholism”: lessons from the medieval experience with alcohol. Contemporary Drug Problems, 19(3), 409-429.

Scroll to Top