The Gentrification of Addiction
The ad arrives in between Spotify songs. A low, feminine voice cast over a hit song, music bouncing from each earbud as the voice promotes a new perfume, Black Opium. It is described as more than alluring; it is addictive. The ad is not unfamiliar, in its style more than its product. Different versions have begun circulating for a number of goods, typically high-end luxuries from recognizable brands. Using addiction as a marketing strategy has become commonplace, ubiquitous in the consumer mindset. Beneath its rise, however, is the presence of actual, diagnosed addiction. Corporate use of addiction as a marketing strategy takes away from the seriousness of addiction as an issue and shifts important discussions away from where they are most needed.
The opioid epidemic is one of the most devastating in American history, but it is only recently getting attention in the public sphere. The crisis started in the 1980s, as doctors and physicians began to view treating pain as an important aspect of medical care. Several studies published at the time in the New England Journal of Medicine posited that opioids were only addictive “when used recreationally... and not when used to treat pain.” Prescription opioids increased in prevalence throughout the 1980s and 90s, but the introduction of OxyContin in the mid-1990s catapulted opioid abuse to the extreme. Opioid manufacturers lobbied and advertised their products extensively, and misinformed doctors began prescribing opioid products to treat any level of pain.
Another factor in the rise of opioid prescriptions was the financial incentive for doctors. n countries like the United States, where healthcare is overwhelmingly for-profit, doctors remain practicing by having a high number of satisfied patients; this necessitates pain management, and prescribing opioids has become a broad answer to many pain problems. This also helps explain the discrepancy in the rate of opioid-related deaths in the United States versus the drastically lower rate of European countries, which do not have financial incentives to prescribe medication. One study found the age-adjusted rate of opioid deaths to be nine times higher in the United States as opposed to the EU.
A concurrent spike in heroin-related deaths worsened the epidemic as well. The crisis has been worst in economically-poor regions with high levels of unemployment; “individuals under the poverty line were 2.1 percentage points more likely to have misused opioids in the past twelve months than individuals above 200 percent of the poverty level,” and “increases in county unemployment rates predict increases in opioid death rates,” said U.S. Department of Health researchers Ghertner and Groves. The disproportionate effect of the epidemic on poor communities has also limited access to equitable and effective treatment.
One driving cause of the opioid epidemic was the increase in opioid marketing by companies such as Purdue Pharma, one of the largest manufacturers of OxyContin. Despite the knowledge that their product was highly addictive and being abused, Purdue Pharma marketed its product as less addictive than it actually was. The inverse is occurring in the advent of addiction marketing: corporations have begun marketing their products as more addictive than they are.
Now, addiction has moved across industries from pharmaceutics to the commercial sphere. In the commercial previously introduced, fashion company Yves Saint Laurent released a new perfume called “Black Opium.” The product refers to the opium poppy plant, which is used in the production of heroin and other opioids. It is a highly addictive substance, which is the connection Yves Saint Laurent makes in its marketing. The pricey perfume has been a bestseller for the company, reportedly selling almost 900 bottles a day. The creator of the perfume, Nathalie Lorson, said that “the idea behind Black Opium was addiction,” and that she hoped to make it “universal.” The company has created a link between a luxury good and addiction, a disease that disproportionately affects those struggling financially. There has also been a significant rise in heroin use and addiction among people of higher-income status, which further cements the idea of addiction as a luxury. Instead of viewing addiction as the public health epidemic it is, these forms of marketing shift the public mindset to view addiction as a sort of luxury itself.
Another possible component of the issue is the involvement of search algorithms and their use in specialized ads. As those suffering from addiction search for treatment programs or solutions, their searches are influencing the ads that appear on the sites they visit. If there are shared keywords like addiction and obsession, there will be an even more direct link to poorer populations and the marketing of addiction. As those suffering from addictions look for a way to get help, their advertisements could include those similar to the perfume by Yves St. Laurent. Exposure to these ads could produce a cyclical effect, reinforcing the idea of addiction as a luxury and increasing the stigma around addiction.
In an article published in the Enquirer, Paul Solomon discusses the gentrification of addiction. He says that as more white people have started to become addicted to drugs like heroin (72% of all overdose deaths in 2019), “the language of shame has changed.” The derogatory language that had previously been used to describe a largely Black or brown user base was shifting, couching addiction in language that shifted blame away from users. While this people-first language should have been used since the start of the crisis, its rise now shows racial bias.
Corporations’ shift in addiction image is another aspect of this gentrification of addiction, centered not on race but on poverty. Corporations have commodified a serious public health crisis, both romanticizing addiction and, intentionally or not, downplaying a serious and widespread disease. The predominance of the strategy in marketing high-priced and luxury goods further shifts the focus of addiction away from where attention is desperately needed. This follows how physical communities are gentrified. Wealthy people, in this case products like Black Opium perfume, move into the area, like an addiction, and force those in need, like people with addictions, out of their own neighborhoods.
The gentrification of addiction will have serious consequences for those suffering from addiction, especially in poorer areas. As an association forms between addiction and wealth, the stigma that those suffering from addictions experience will increase. As stigma increases, the number of people who seek help for their addictions will plummet. Already sparse community health solutions will be underutilized. And as corporations pull in the profit, local communities will pay.