When Grease star Jeff Conaway died May 27 after a lifelong battle with addiction, Dr. Drew Pinsky was quick to publicly declare that the star’s demise was not an overdose. The 60-year-old’s body, the doctor said, simply gave out after years of prescription-drug abuse.
The distinction makes a big difference to Pinsky — and to his VH1 reality series, Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, which counted Conaway as one of its most famous patients. The show has been under fire since it debuted three years ago, but Conaway’s pneumonia-related death — coupled with the March loss of another Rehab alum, Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr — has revived the debate over the practice of trying to help faded stars get sober under the glare of the spotlight. ”We are portraying the treatment of a fatal illness,” Pinsky tells EW. ”If you treat fatal diseases in a public program, people we treat are going to die.”
Though no rehab program, televised or not, should be blamed for a participant’s death, many in the addiction-treatment community say it’s time to pull the plug on Rehab (which begins a new season June 26). ”How could this be working, a doctor benefiting fame-wise and financially from patients’ misery?” asks Dr. Jeffrey Foote, cofounder of NYC’s substance-abuse facility Center for Motivation and Change. And Dr. David Sack, CEO of celeb-friendly rehab center Promises, adds, ”This is not the optimal way to treat people, and I don’t think a responsible physician can say, ‘I have a better way to do this, but I’m going to do it the worst way.”’
Pinsky, however, insists that the TV cameras are exactly what make his methods so effective. ”Here is a group of people who were unmotivated, and they come to be on TV and get paid,” he notes. ”In spite of the distorted motivation, they come to treatment.”