The moment someone addicted to alcohol, opioids, or other drugs decides to seek treatment is pivotal. But the next step — finding help — could be fraught with hazards.
“The addiction treatment industry has become very predatory as a whole,” says Michael E. Schatman, PhD, director of research and network development at Boston Pain Care. “The consumer seeking help is in a bad position, and he or she is not going to know where to go.”
Experts say one of the biggest problems is that people seeking addiction treatment rely heavily on Google.
A grand jury in Palm Beach County, FL, issued a report in 2016 citing many offenses that reflect the problems nationwide. Among them, it found that online marketers use Google to hijack the name of reputable centers by buying a Google ad and manipulating the search engine so they show up high in search results. The marketers would then route callers to inept or even dangerous centers, or to centers far from their home, even when nearby treatment was available. The results often led to not just ineffective treatment, but in rare cases human trafficking and other atrocities.
“We call it addiction tourism,” says Greg Williams, executive vice president of Facing Addiction with NCADD (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence), organizations devoted to helping the 45 million people and their loved ones affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
Google’s AdWords system puts those with smaller budgets, such as nonprofits and government entities, at a disadvantage, Williams says. His groups and others have been working to stem the abuse, including discussions with Google officials.
Google had already suspended all ads for addiction treatment centers in the U.S. It’s now extended that suspension globally while acknowledging there were more “bad actors taking advantage of those in need,” according to a statement from Google. The statement says the company is continuing to work on the issue and plans to “consult with experts to find a better way to connect people with the treatment they need.”