Claims to addiction seem to become more ludicrous by the day. Since the triumph of the counselling revolution, addiction has become the fashionable way of describing an ever-expanding variety of human behaviour. So the meeting of the Addictions Forum in Durham this week will not only consider the old-fashioned addictions like alcoholism, but will also examine topics such as the pathology of scratch cards. Shopping addiction, chocoholism and soap opera fixation are already widely discussed in women's magazines. At this rate it can surely only be a matter of time before most of us have earned the addict label. Crave an occasional cream cake? Watch out, you're just one step away from pathological bingeing.
The question that hangs in the air is this: what does it mean to be "addicted" to shopping, or chocolate, or sex.
Are we not in danger of applying the medical label of addiction to what used to be called "bad habits". Indeed, almost every form of compulsive behaviour is described in these medical terms.
People who compulsively "sleep around" (or want to) used to be labelled promiscuous; now they are "addicted to sex". Today, we use the language of disease and addiction to describe a common human experience. The American Association on Sexual Addiction Problems estimates that between 10 and 15 per cent of all Americans - around 25 million people - are addicted to sex!
Many of the discussions about addiction use alcoholism as their reference point. It is indisputable that a proportion of heavy drinkers become dependent on alcohol, and that this is a "bad thing". Other more doubtful addictions can be condemned by association. One expert informs us that children who play a lot of computer games have a serious problem because they get the same euphoria as heavy drinkers. We are also advised that shopping addiction is a real disease which "can amount to a form of illness on a par with compulsive gambling and alcoholism". According to Kay Sheppard, an American clinician and self-confessed "food addict in recovery", many food addicts come from alcoholic families. What would once have been seen as gluttony is now "understood" as a dependence - a clinical condition to be treated with understanding.
At a time when the victim has become the icon of the Nineties, the tendency to blame human problems on some addiction or other has become irresistible. Every new innovation brings fears of a new breed of addicts. No sooner had the Lottery been launched than the experts were warning of a nation hooked on gambling. Inevitably the Internet has resulted in Internet Addiction Syndrome (IAD). When, two years ago, Dr Ivan Goldberg, a New York psycho-pharmacist, first identified IAD, it was treated as something of a joke. However, it has since been "confirmed" by other experts that Internet users are at risk from addiction. IAD has been blamed for broken relationships, job losses, financial ruin and even a suicide. And of course there is the obligatory self-help group - called Caught in the Net - to counsel those suffering from this addiction.
We live in a world that encourages more and more people to think of themselves as addicted or ill. Since counsellors insist that you can never cure addiction, these are permanent conditions; there are no ex-junkies, only "addicts in recovery", living "one day at a time". Addiction has become at once a life sentence and a permanent excuse that can explain away our failings. By claiming the status of an addict, people put themselves beyond reproach - the problem is not their fault. The compulsive shopper is not expected simply to show restraint and learn to budget. The chocoholic is not expected to demonstrate willpower. And the sex addict is not expected to contain his lechery.
As signed-up members of the culture of victimhood, we are merely expected to acknowledge publicly our bad habits. We must all compete, like guests on Oprah, to prove that we are the most put-upon and pathetic people in the house, the most deserving of counselling and compensation. It is not the new breed of addicts who are sick but a culture that encourages this celebration of irresponsibility.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury. His `Culture of Fear; Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectations' has recently been published by Cassell
Part three of Matt Brace's `Mississippi Journey' will appear in the Saturday Travel section