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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: A new study released today out of Britain says alcohol is more harmful to society than the illegal drugs cocaine and heroin.

Those other illegal drugs are more harmful to the user, but the key difference in the study is alcoholism's effect on people around the addict. Like the economic repercussions. The research was done by the former U.K. drug czar at the center for crime and justice studies.

Susan Foster is vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. She's with us live from New York. Susan, thanks for being here.

SUSAN FOSTER: I am happy to join you.

CHIOTAKIS: Alright, is this a surprise to you?

FOSTER: It's not a surprise at all. There's been a lot of research in the United States, we've done some of it, that shows if you look at overall cost to society, the cost linked of alcohol outstripped those of even tobacco, and of all other drugs combined. And our own work on the cost to government -- federal, state, local government -- shows the same pattern.

CHIOTAKIS: Put the law enforcement aspect of this aside, how much harder is it to deal with alcoholism as opposed to illegal drug addition from a cost perspective? You mentioned how much it costs, but from an economic perspective as a whole.

FOSTER: Well the problem is that these costs largely mount as a resolve of our failure to prevent and treat the problem. We haven't yet learned that we can address this thing by looking for the problem upfront, and the responding in ways that minimize those costs. So they all mount and they end up that we're paying these back end costs to shovel up after the problem rather than to invest in prevention treatment.

CHIOTAKIS: What do you think society needs to do to combat this and to lessen the costs of alcoholism?

FOSTER: Well, I think they have to understand that alcohol -- just as an addiction to any other drug -- is a medical condition and that risky use of any of these substance is a public health problem. Until we make that switch away from a sort of criminal justice approach or an approach of people behaving badly to base our approach on the science and deal with it as a public health and medical problem we're not going to solve it. Once we do that, we can significantly eat into and avoid those social costs.

CHIOTAKIS: Susan Foster from CASA over at Columbia University. Susan, thank you.

FOSTER: You're welcome.