The annual number of U.S. opioid overdose deaths now exceeds those from car crashes and gun violence combined. Adolescents and young adults are disproportionately affected, and negative media portrayals of them have not helped matters, says Patrick G. O’Connor, M.D., M.P.H., the Dan Adams and Amanda Adams Professor of General Medicine, chief of general internal medicine, and a renowned expert on addiction.

To promote change in this area, O’Connor is collaborating with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Viacom, and the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) on finding ways to improve depictions of drug use.

At an April briefing held at Viacom headquarters in New York, O’Connor and Jack B. Stein, Ph.D., NIDA’s director of science policy and communications, met with Viacom screenwriters, content development experts, and other leaders to provide evidence-based information to help them as they develop plots and characters dealing with substance use disorders. A major goal was to ensure that creators of television avoid stereotypes, inaccurate portrayals, or inadvertent promotion of substance use in dramas, comedies, and “reality” shows.

“Bringing science into the discussion of addiction in the media is a critical step in assuring that the public receives accurate and timely information related to substance use and all of its medical and social consequences along with its impact on families and communities,” O’Connor said at the briefing, which was sponsored by EIC, a nonprofit that focuses on health and social issues in entertainment.

The participants also focused on overcoming stigma associated with drug use, which can be an obstacle to getting people to seek treatment. A discussion on “language matters” was designed to address stigma by encouraging the use of descriptions such as “person with a substance use disorder” rather than “addict,” and avoiding talk of “drug abusers” who might be “dirty” rather than “clean.”

“Research done by our group at Yale and those elsewhere has demonstrated conclusively that treatment works,” said O’Connor. “Overcoming stigma is essential in assuring that individuals suffering from addiction can get access to the help that they need.”

The briefing underscored the fact that addiction is a complex but highly treatable chronic disease and that recovery is a lifelong process. In addition to reevaluating its television portrayals of addiction, Viacom has launched “The Listen Campaign,” aimed at its young target audience, offering resources “to help turn addiction around.”

O’Connor says working through the media has been an important exercise. “This collaboration represents a unique opportunity for academic medicine, NIDA, and industry to get it right and contribute to the broader public health goal of addressing addiction and saving lives.”