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If Alcohol Were Discovered Today, Would it be Legal?

Booze has created a public health crisis of immense proportions.

The following is an excerpt from  Drugs: Without the Hot Air, by David Nutt  (2012 UIT Cambridge).

A terrifying new “legal high” has hit our streets. Methyl-carbonol, known by the street name “wiz,” is a clear liquid that causes cancers, liver problems, and brain disease, and is more toxic than ecstasy and cocaine. Addiction can occur after just one drink, and addicts will go to any lengths to get their next fix – even letting their kids go hungry or beating up their partners to obtain money. Casual users can go into blind rages when they’re high, and police have reported a huge increase in crime where the drug is being used. Worst of all, drinks companies are adding “wiz” to fizzy drinks and advertising them to kids like they’re plain Coca-Cola. Two or three teenagers die from it every week overdosing on a binge, and another 10 from having accidents caused by reckless driving. “Wiz” is a public menace – when will the Home Secretary think of the children and make this dangerous substance Class A?

In the days following the publication of our harms paper, several newspapers ran headlines along the lines of “Professor Nutt says Alcohol Worse than Drugs,” as though alcohol weren’t a drug itself. This false distinction is a large part of the communication problem I encounter whenever I try to emphasise how harmful alcohol is. It has a separate language – you get “high” on drugs, but “drunk” on alcohol, drug addicts need a “fix” but alcoholics need a “drink.” As I hope the satirical paragraph above about alcohol shows (methylcarbonol is another chemical name for ethanol, which is the psychoactive part of alcohol), to think rationally about drugs policy we have to see alcohol in the same context as other drugs, not separately. Alcohol also has a lot to teach us about what not to do when a potentially lethal, habit-forming substance is legal.

We are currently facing a public-health crisis of immense proportions. The increase in harms caused by alcohol over the last 50 years in the UK is comparable to the Gin Craze in the early 18th century, when the urban poor of London were consuming a pint of gin a day per head on average.

Recent annual statistics show:

  • 40,000 deaths, including 350 just from acute alcohol poisoning and 8,000 from cirrhosis of the liver. More than a million hospital admissions in 2007/8 (including 13,000 under-18s), costing the NHS £2.7 billion.

  • 7,000 road traffic accidents, including 500 deaths.

  • 1.2 million violent incidents and 500,000 crimes, costing the police £7 billion. In addition:

  • 40% of domestic violence cases involve alcohol, as well as 50% of child protection cases.

  • 3.5 million adults in the UK are addicted, and up to 700,000 children live with a parent with a drink problem. 6,000 children a year are born with fetal alcohol syndrome each year.

  • Globally, the main burden of disease in 15- to 24-year-old males is due to alcohol, outweighing unsafe sex, illicit drug use, and physical accidents combined.

  • The total economic cost has been calculated as £30 billion a year – though some calculations estimate it may be as high as £55 billion.

The drinks industry responds to critiques like mine by saying that alcohol misuse affects only a “minority.” Clearly, alcohol harms don’t affect just a minority, they affect all of us – as victims of car crashes and street violence, as patients, as families of hazardous drinkers, and as taxpayers. Reducing these harms and associated costs is a huge public-health challenge that ought to be a top priority for our policy makers. Unfortunately, while the Labour government was talking “tough on drugs,” trying to score political points by making cannabis Class B, banning mephedrone and exaggerating the harms of ecstasy, they missed the growing epidemic around the most harmful drug of all – or more accurately just looked the other way.