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farah stockman

The politics of addiction

At a GOP presidential debate in September, Carly Fiorina stood out for a brave and deeply personal admission: She and her husband had lost a child to drug addiction.

“I very much hope I am the only person on this stage who can say this,” she said. “But I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing.”

In a country that’s been ravaged by middle-class drug addiction, Fiorina’s story struck political gold. Three days after that debate, CNN declared her the Number 2 favorite in the race. But, it turns out, she wasn’t the only one on that stage with a deeply personal story about addiction. One by one, her rivals have come out to tell their own.

In October, Donald Trump told People magazine about his brother Fred, who died of alcoholism. In November, Ted Cruz told Jake Tapper of CNN the story of his unsuccessful attempt to rescue his half-sister Miriam from a crack house in Philadelphia. (Miriam died of a drug overdose in 2011.) And just last week, Jeb Bush opened up about his daughter Noelle, who was sent to rehab for faking a drug perscription and then went to jail after being caught with crack cocaine in the rehabilitation facility. He talked about it in a town hall meeting in New Hampshire — a state that knows all too much about addiction — and in a magazine piece. Noelle also features prominently in a brand new television ad.

Not to be outdone, Chris Christie’s speech about his mother’s struggle with nicotine addiction, and her subsequent diagnosis with lung cancer, went viral in November.


And although Rand Paul has yet to give a heartfelt interview about it, his 22-year-old son has had three alcohol-related brushes with the law. Paul’s son William pleaded guilty in May to driving under the influence, after he crashed his truck into a parked car.

So that makes at least five — not counting Christie — out of 11 GOP contenders — not counting Jim Gilmore — who have had had close family members who’ve struggled with drugs or alcohol. That’s 40 percent, an awfully high figure, given that research shows that between 10 and 20 percent of ordinary Americans have directly felt the impact of alcohol or drug problems, either in their own lives or in the lives of close family members. How could it be that high?

Maybe due to the small sample size, this GOP race is a statistical fluke. Or maybe growing up in the glare of the public eye — like Jeb’s daughter, or Rand Paul’s son — increases the chances of addiction. But there’s a third possibility: that we’re undercounting the level of addiction in the rest of society. Maybe those of us who are not running for president see little upside in admitting just how prevalent addiction is in our lives.

“Maybe the time is coming when [the percentage of Americans impacted by addiction] is revised upwards, toward 50 percent,” said William Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and author of the best-selling memoir “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption.’’ “For the first time, candidates are helping to illuminate the dark recesses of illness that has been stigmatized.”


Dr. Kima Joy Taylor, director of the National Drug Addiction Treatment and Harm Reduction Program, agrees. “Addiction is way more prevalent than people pretend,” she said.

If politicians can get the rest of us to be more honest about addiction, that might be the silver lining of this crazy campaign.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.