What is addiction?

Addiction is one of the most misunderstood health conditions. Addiction is a chronic health condition that occurs when someone is unable to stop consuming a drug or activity, even if it is causing physical or psychological harm, or affecting their life.

Addiction is a major contributor to the burden of disease in Australia, and a leading preventable cause of injury, illness and death. Addiction also does not discriminate, and can affect young and older people from all communities. In Australia one in five people will experience problems with alcohol, other drug use or gambling during their lifetime.

The good news is that addiction can be successfully managed with the right treatment and support. People who get help can achieve recovery, prevent relapses and experience an improved quality of life.

Why do people become addicted?

Many people don’t understand why or how people become addicted to drugs or behaviours. It can be mistakenly believed that people experiencing addiction lack moral principles or willpower and could simply stop if they chose to. In reality, addiction is complex and managing addiction takes much more than good intentions or strong will.

People do not choose to become addicted. Instead, there are biological, environmental, and life experience related factors that predispose people to addiction. Like any other health condition, the more risk factors a person has, the higher the risk of developing a disease. Addiction is no different. Some risk factors of addiction include:


Our personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, genetic makeup and experiencing other health issues can influence risk for addiction.


A person’s environment includes our quality of life, connection to family and friends, economic status and culture. Experiencing peer pressure, abuse, neglect, early exposure to drugs, stress and isolation can greatly affect a person’s risk of developing addiction.


Although addiction can occur at any age, earlier drug use or exposure to addictive behaviours can put a person at greater risk of becoming addicted. This is because areas in our brains that control decision-making, judgement and self-control are still developing in young people.

Characteristics of Drugs and Addictive Behaviours

Most drugs and addictive behaviours affect the brain’s “reward circuit”, causing euphoria or a “high.” As addiction continues the brain adapts by reducing the ability of the reward circuit to respond, resulting in a reduced high compared to how the drug or addictive behaviour was first experienced. This is called tolerance, and can also cause people to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if consumption of the addictive drug or activity is stopped or reduced.

These brain adaptations often lead to a person consuming more of a drug or addictive activity, to try and get the same high and avoid withdrawal. Over time this can reduce a person’s ability to feel pleasure from other things they once enjoyed (such as food, social activities and relationships), and result in loss of control.

Addiction in Australia

If you or someone you know is affected by addiction, you are not alone.

Data from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) has identified that 11% of Australians smoke tobacco daily, 25% drink alcohol at a risky level on a single occasion at least monthly, and more than two in five Australians have used an illicit drug in their lifetime. In addition, 4.2% of Australians will use prescription medication for non-medical purposes each year.

Data from the 2015 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey has identified that in 2015 there were an estimated 6.8 million regular gamblers in Australia, with 1.1 million regular gamblers estimated to behave in ways that have either caused, or put them at risk of gambling-related problems.

One in five Australians meet criteria for an alcohol, other drug or gambling disorder during their lifetime, yet fewer than one quarter of those affected seek professional help. There are many barriers to accessing care, compounded by high levels of stigma and a lack of community confidence in treatment. As a result, people seek treatment between one and two decades after first experiencing problems, resulting in significant health and social harms, including poor physical and mental health, fractured relationships, homelessness and unemployment.

We cannot continue to ignore the significant implications of these alarming statistics, and allow a two-decade delay in treatment-seeking, at a time when prevention and early intervention of other medical conditions are core principles of healthcare. We must act.

Is support available?

Recovery from addiction is possible, and there is free treatment and support available to help people affected by addiction.

We understand that the stigma associated with addiction can make it difficult for people to reach out. If you are affected by addiction a great place to start can be telephone or online support services.

For alcohol and other drug support:

Call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015 or visit Counselling Online

For gambling support:

Call the National Gambling Helpline on 1800 858 858 or visit Gambling Help Online

All of these services are free, confidential and available 24/7 to provide a safe, and anonymous and space for people affected by addiction to receive guidance about next steps. The counsellors are positive, judgement-free and able to connect you with treatment and support so that starting your recovery journey can feel far less daunting and achievable.

You can also chat to people with similar experiences on the Counselling Online and Gambling Help Online forums.

What can I do next?

Read a bit more about gambling or alcohol and other drugs.