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Opioid abuse should be treated as a disease not a moral failing, says CEO who lost his son to addiction

  • An addict's ability to stop is "no different" than a diabetic whose body can't regulate insulin levels properly, says Gary Mendell.
  • After he lost his son in 2011, Mendell founded Shatterproof, a non-profit focused on ending the disease of addiction.
  • Mendell's fight comes as the U.S. struggles with the deadliest drug crisis in American history.

Gary Mendell was running a successful hotel investment firm when he lost his son to addiction about six years ago. After that, the direction of his life changed.

In the late 1980s, Mendell started HEI Hotels & Resorts which owns and operates properties under some of the biggest brands, including Starwood, Marriott, and Hilton.

"I was a CEO running businesses, and my older son, Brian, struggled with addiction for eight years," Mendell told CNBC's "Squawk Box" in an interview this week.

Brian tried marijuana in his teenage years, which led to his use of harder drugs and eight different treatment programs and therapies to try to stop, Mendell recalled.

"Each one was different," he said, claiming that none of them followed "evidence-based protocols, backed by research."

Ultimately, weighed down by the emotional weight of his addiction, Mendell's son killed himself.

"My son didn't die of an overdose," Mendell said. "My son hadn't used a substance in 13 months and he took his life. And he wrote about it in a note about the shame and stigma he felt about being a 'bad kid.' And that's just not my son."

Gary Mendell (left) and son Brian Mendell.
Source: Shatterproof
Gary Mendell (left) and son Brian Mendell.

Following Brian's death, Mendell said he found a disconnect between peer-reviewed science on addiction, and the actions that standard recovery programs took to treat patients. Medical journals showed "without a doubt" concrete ways to prevent addiction in teens and improve treatment outcomes, he said.

Mendell then founded Shatterproof, a nonprofit working to end the stigma of addiction and foster a community of support. The advocacy group provides what it calls evidence-based resources to support prevention, treatment, and recovery.

Mendell's fight comes as the U.S. struggles with the deadliest drug crisis in American history. Opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, played a role in more than 33,000 U.S. deaths in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month, 16 major health-care players, including Aetna, Cigna, and Anthem, signed on to Shatterproof's Substance Use Disorder Treatment Task Force. The organization is aiming to fight the opioid crisis by seeking to bring standardized care to addiction treatment.

The FDA announced earlier this month that it would look at ways to reduce exposure to opioids and other addictive substances. The agency is looking at expanding treatments to fight opioid addiction. There are currently three approved treatments, and "they all work," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has said.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

Addiction is "a disease," Mendell said, "and no different from someone with diabetes ... [who can't] control the amount of insulin in their system. Your brain functions in different ways."

When asked about ways to treat opioids, Mendell said the "gold standard" is medicated-assisted treatment. "Medication no different than someone with diabetes who is getting insulin," Mendell said. "And the love of your family."

— Reuters contributed to this report.

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