April 9, 2001

Recovering stars shine at Prism Awards

By Greg W. Reed Moran, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Wednesday night at the 5th Annual Prism Awards in Los Angeles, Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis were reunited for the first time since their starring roles on Anything But Love.

But it was far more than love that Curtis revealed for her former costar. It was sincere gratitude for saving her life.

The veteran actress of Trading Places and Halloween candidly revealed Lewis' critical role in her ongoing recovery from addiction.

"Without the caring efforts of this close friend, I wouldn't be in recovery today," says Curtis. When the audience erupted in applause, Curtis demurely added, "You can clap, because I appreciate this miracle every day." Curtis and Lewis, himself a recovering alcoholic, chose to celebrate their good fortune and message of hope at the Prism Awards, because the star-studded evening honors the accurate depiction of drug, alcohol and tobacco use in film and television entertainment.

"I lost a lot of friends to drugs and alcohol," says Lewis. "Hey, I came within inches of killing myself. Being part of honoring those who say 'it's not hip to be killing yourself early' is just dessert to a guy like me who's lucky to be alive."

Multiple Oscar-winner Traffic won top nod for theatrical film at the Awards, presented by the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc. in partnership with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Other honorees included Sex and the City, The Corner, and E.R.

"I truly believe the drug and alcohol problem in America is an epidemic," says Curtis. "But sadly, it's all too often a hidden problem."

For that reason, Curtis considers television and films that bring the ravages of addiction to light to be providing a public service. "Traffic was a perfect example of depicting the nightmare of a complex and pervasive problem in a compelling yet entertaining way."

Curtis is an ardent advocate of dramatizing the hazards and insidious lure of drugs and alcohol in order to counter the competing messages present in society.

"Let's be honest, there will always be a glamorous side to the world of substance abuse," concedes Curtis. "It's part rebellion, part of the pop culture, and often a rite of passage for many teens and young adults."

Curtis explains that part of the public's confusion on this issue is that not everyone suffers the disastrous effects of experimentation in equal measure.

"We can't tell ahead of time who's going to fall," says Curtis. "Some people can ingest alcohol and some drugs on a regular basis, and not fall prey to the downward spiral that afflicts others."

"That seeming randomness of fate makes too many people feel they're invulnerable," adds Curtis. "When the fact is that a large proportion of people live their lives without knowing how addicted they really are."

April's Alcohol Awareness Month provides a golden opportunity for many addicts to get help before it's too late.

How big a problem?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that in 1999 about 14.8 million Americans were current users of illicit drugs. Approximately 3.5 million were dependent on these drugs, and an additional 8.2 million were dependent on alcohol.

NIDA states that in 1995, there were 531,000 drug-related visits to hospital emergency rooms. More than half of these visits were due to drug overdoses.

Nearly 143,000 of these were cocaine-related, with increases in the population 35 and older. Heroin-related emergency room incidents increased 19% since 1994, and marijuana accounted for a 17% increase.

Among juvenile arrestees in 1999, marijuana was the most commonly used drug by both males and females. More than half of juvenile males and nearly 40% of the females tested positive for marijuana.

Ecstacy (MDMA) became more widespread in 17 metropolitan areas since 1999, and in Boston it was the most frequently mentioned drug in telephone calls to the Poison Control Center during last year.

Only methamphetamine-related emergency room visits showed a significant decrease of 34% during the second half of 1995. But they increased 26.5% during the first half of 1999.

"There's a certain sadness and irony in this trend," says Prism Awards presenter Alan Thicke. "We ran an episode on Growing Pains where my character's daughter, played by Tracy Gold, lost her boyfriend in a drunk-driving crash."

Thicke adds that the actor who played the ill-fated boyfriend was the very young and talented Mathew Perry. Perry, now famous through his long-running career on Friends, is currently waging a very public battle with his own addiction to Vicodin and alcohol.

"The purpose of the Prism Awards is to honor people who work to break the perverse association between glamour and addiction," says Curtis. "Addiction of any sort is a life-threatening disease that destroys lives and families. Contrary to what some believe, Hollywood is actually making a serious effort to get that point across."

Changing the buzz

Alan Leshner, director of NIDA, agrees that Hollywood has often taken a bum rap for promoting risky and irresponsible behavior.

"The entertainment industry gets singles out every time it makes a mistake in the message it portrays," says Leshner. "The reality is that Hollywood, the ultimate common communicator, does a fairly good job of dealing with realities of addiction and that's what the Prism Awards are here to acknowledge."

Leshner does acknowledge, however, that the media often takes the same simplistic approach to the addiction crisis that is prevalent among the public.

"The media, and society in general, want easy obvious solutions and that's understandable," says Leshner. "But as much as we naturally search for simple solutions, the hard and honest answer is addiction is much more complex."

According to Leshner, whether substance abusers are victims of genetics or guilty of what they've done to themselves, the solution is a matter of taking a public health approach, addressing public safety, and simultaneously bringing treatment into the criminal justice system."

Leshner says that all public health issues require a comprehensive strategy, simultaneously dealing with the following factors:

Leshner explains that the same approach was used to treat a public health menace like malaria. "You deal with the agent (the pathogen), treat the host patient, control the vector (mosquitoes) and deal with the environment (stagnant water)."

"We're not reinventing the wheel here," adds Leshner. "We're just saying that the problem must be attacked on all fronts if we really hope to do anything about it."

"Thankfully, science has recently given us the tools to deal with the problems of addiction and recovery, so we don't have to make it up as we go along," says Leshner. "The fundamentals are there for prevention, treatment and working with the criminal justice system. We just need the public's support to forge ahead."

Curtis is a grateful member of the recovering community, and appreciates the efforts of those in Hollywood spreading the good news. "Drugs, alcohol, even smoking are often seen as part of the freedom of growing up," says Curtis. "What Richard and I found out is that freedom can quickly become a prison."

"And nobody deserves to end up in that kind of solitary confinement."