Is addiction a disease or a choice? We ask healthcare workers

Matthew SmithLead data journalist
January 31, 2020, 1:13 PM UTC

A plurality of healthcare workers see willpower as the most important component in addiction, but most believe there are also factors outside individual control

How far can people control their addictions? Treating drug and alcohol misuse costs the NHS as much as £4bn a year, so finding the answer could have a huge financial benefit.

As things stand, a previous YouGov study of the general population found that 44% of Britons believe people have a large amount of control over their addictions. Only 21% think people have little to no control over their behaviour.

But what do healthcare professionals think? A new YouGov study conducted among 1,027 health workers, including doctors, nurses and NHS staff, reveals to what extent they feel drug, alcohol and cigarette addiction and obesity are within the power of individuals to control.

Almost a third (31%) believe that cigarette addiction is entirely down to personal choice, with 16-20% saying the same of obesity and drug and alcohol addiction. By contrast, a mere 1-2% said these issues are completely outside of an individual’s control.

Broadening the categories finds that 40-61% say that personal choice is a greater factor in these issues than things an individual can’t help, like genetics. Only 12-19% take the opposite view, saying that such factors have a greater influence than personal choice.

Between 27% and 37% felt that both factors played an equally large role in addiction and obesity.

Most professionals accept that factors a person can’t control play a role in addiction

However, looking at the data from a different perspective shows that the overwhelming majority of healthcare professionals (66-82%) believe that factors beyond a person’s control play at least some role in addiction. In the case of obesity and drug and alcohol addiction 49-57% of professionals believe that the factors that are beyond the ability of a person to control are as big, if not bigger, than the willpower factor.

The NHS itself seems to be non-committal on how far it thinks addiction is within the ability of an individual’s control, saying simply that “Some studies suggest addiction is genetic, but environmental factors, such as being around other people with addictions, are also thought to increase the risk.”

Photo: Getty

See the full results here

Find out more about YouGov's Healthcare Professionals panel