I do not drink alcohol, except for the occasional champagne or wine at weddings and other social events when such beverages are used to toast people. But I grew up in a family where most of the men drank a lot and Sri Lanka has a lot of heavy drinkers so I am familiar with the problems that alcohol can cause. Given that environment, why I did not start drinking myself I do not know. Perhaps seeing the adverse ways it caused people to behave was one factor. Another may be that my group of friends in college, the age when most people pick up the habit, were not drinkers either and so it was not part of our group activities and there was no peer pressure. Alcohol was not cheap and we preferred to spend our money on films and food. It was only much later that I learned of the genetic element that predisposes some people to become alcoholics and so it is perhaps a good thing that I did not start, just in case I had the gene and it may have been triggered.
As a result, I have long been interested in the problem of alcohol and so listened with interest to last week’s episode of On The Media where they devoted the entire hour to discussing the role of alcohol in society and how it is portrayed in the media. There were four segments. The first dealt with the history of alcohol and how it was perceived in society through the ages and the third discuses the organization Alcohol Anonymous and its inexplicable hold on the public imagination as one of the best ways to combat alcoholism despite its very poor rates of success.
I want to focus on the other two segments. In the last segment, host Brooke Gladstone talked with David Nutt, a psychologist at Imperial College London, who used to be an advisor on drug use to the British government before he was fired for giving advice they did not want to hear. He talked about the difficulty he had persuading the British government that any drug that was less harmful than alcohol should be made legal.
He said that that they developed a MCDA (Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis) approach that combined nine harms to the user and seven harms to society and suggested that the resultant metric based on those 16 parameters be used to decide which drugs should be placed in which category. The British have a classification system of Schedule A, B, C drugs to indicate levels of harm. But the government refused to go along with their recommendations because of fears of what the public might say if drugs that they thought were dangerous received a less serious classification. This got him fired.
After he was fired, he published a study in the medical journal Lancet in 2010 that used the MCDA standard to examine 20 drugs and found that alcohol was, according to their criteria, the most dangerous drug. This was not so much due to the harm it did to the user but because the cost to other people was huge: traffic accidents, cost to health services, lost productivity due to hangovers, spouse and child abuse, etc.
He recommends that cannabis be made legal and he also makes the radical suggestion that we should decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs because for 90% of the people caught with such drugs, their lives are more harmed by the prosecution for criminal possession than by the drugs themselves. The other 10% need treatment and putting such people in prison seems cruel and pointless. Although most people would find this recommendation unthinkable, Portugal did exactly this 15 years ago, and the number of deaths of from heroin have gone done by a third and overall drug usage has dropped. But he says that the alcohol industry spends vast amounts of money to buy off politicians and otherwise persuade people that alcohol should be the only legal recreational drug.
He has also created a new kind of drink called ‘alcosynth’ that produces some of the benefits that people seek in alcohol without the adverse health effects. He thinks that there will be a market for this in those Muslim countries where alcohol is forbidden and in China where the government is greatly concerned about the high level of alcohol consumption.
Gladstone also spoke with Robert Taylor, assistant managing editor at Wine Spectator, about the changing perceptions of the benefits of red wine. A 1991 segment on 60 Minutes touted its benefits in reducing heart disease. The piece came along at a time when alcohol was under siege in the US and the growing fitness movement also challenged the consumption of alcohol. As often happens, people seized on the idea that something that they liked to do anyway was good for them and following that widely watched piece, red wine consumption in the US skyrocketed.
The belief that red wine is beneficial was based on the observation that the French drank wine and ate rich food but had lower levels of coronary heart disease. While France was lauded in the US for having an enlightened attitude towards alcohol consumption, in reality the number of alcohol-related deaths from things other than heart disease (that includes cirrhosis, liver failure, drunk driving) in that country was far higher than in the US. So in 1991, France banned alcohol advertising on TV and film entirely and severely restricted how it could be advertised in print. These ads could not correlate alcohol with happiness or sex. The kinds of ads that we routinely see in the US with young, beautiful people having a great time with alcohol products would not be allowed in French media. As a result alcohol consumption in France is declining while it is rising in the US, though the level is still higher there. In 1980 they were drinking about 80 liters of wine per year per person of drinking age, compared to 7 in the US. Now France has reduced it to 40 while the US has risen to 11.
It was a fascinating program.