Can you break habits such as smoking, booze, etc., through “aversive therapy”?

Dear Cecil:

I'm curious about these alcohol rehabilitation centers that claim to "cure" booze and coke addiction, advertising that their programs are "not talk" but special "medical techniques" that help you "lose the craving." What exactly happens during these "two weeks with a couple of two-day follow-ups"? Are you strapped into a chair with your eyes clamped open, fed nauseating drugs, and forced to watch Budweiser commercials over and over?

Cecil replies:

Dear Don:

What are you, psychic? Your description actually isn’t that far off. You don’t mention which outfit ran the ads you quote, but it sounds like we’re talking about something variously known as “aversive therapy” or “counter-conditioning.” Schick Laboratories, established by the ex-alcoholic who used to run the Schick razor company, runs a typical program. First they feed you a mild nauseant drug called Emetine. Then, at the exact moment the drug takes effect, they have you toss back a jolt of your favorite brew. A couple weeks of this and the mere thought of a martini is enough to make you gag. For smoking or weight control, they give you a little zap of electricity every time you fire up a Camel or eat a Twinkie. The treatment allegedly cures 60 percent of the alkies, 90 percent of the smokers, and a lesser percentage of the fatsos. Pavlov would have loved it.

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