The alcohol problem

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.


  1. says

    I never got into alcohol because I didn’t like the taste of it. People would tell me it’s an acquired taste and that makes no sense to me. If I don’t like something that has no benefits to me, why would I keep consuming it until I develop a taste?

    On top of that, I’ve seen drunk people. It doesn’t look at all fun to me.

  2. Dunc says

    If I don’t like something that has no benefits to me, why would I keep consuming it until I develop a taste?

    Because it expands the range of things you enjoy.

  3. kestrel says

    The Partner works in the ER and is always telling me that the reason people have to wait in the ER to get admitted is because they have so many habitual drunks in there occupying the bed and the services. On the other hand… they do NOT have people smoking a joint, becoming disorderly and disturbing the peace, and then taking up a lot of resources due to pot. In fact the Partnrt has (so far) never had a patient show up in the ER due to pot.

    My feeling is, prohibition did not work. The “war on drugs” idea is no more successful. I do not believe for one minute that, due to the war on drugs, I would not be able get drugs if I wanted them. (I do not, just for the record.) In fact I think that people who wish to get drugs can do so. All we have accomplished is to make some people a ton of money by allowing them to lock up relatively harmless people in jail, and in particular, black people.

  4. cartomancer says

    I have never drunk alcohol. Nor has my twin brother. We never talked about it at all, but it seems our upbringing convinced both of us that it was just not something we ever wanted to touch. Our parents got drunk and had massive arguments most Sundays when we were growing up, and it really affected us. When my brother went to university his friends drank a lot, but he was never tempted to do so when socialising with them. I didn’t have any friends at university.

    Fortunately our parents have got a lot better now they’re in their sixties and calmed down somewhat. But I’m still not tempted. Alcoholic drinks are very expensive compared to the drinks I’m used to, and they generally smell terrible. I’d also rather not have my faculties impaired in any situation

  5. Dunc says

    starskeptic, @ #5: I’m not sure I get your meaning. I’m not just taking about alcohol, I’m making a general point… For example, many of the foods I enjoy are things I had to deliberately acquire a taste for, and I’m very glad I made the effort.

  6. says

    I started drinking alcohol to fit in with friends. Didn’t drink until I was 25, and those friends came home from college.

    There have been a couple good times with it, but more bad times.

    Personally, I can not honestly say I enjoy drinking much anymore. I still buy beer, and enjoy it…? But, if for some reason I couldn’t anymore, I would be kinda glad it is gone.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    alcosynth, eh?

    Sounds like something out of a Henry Kuttner story.

    Per (2016):

    A drink touted as a hangover-free synthetic alcohol… The way that alcosynth is metabolized by the body could help people avoid some of the harmful, and potentially deadly, effects on the liver and heart normally associated with alcohol consumption, Nutt said in a statement released by the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a U.K.-based libertarian think tank. … Nutt has offered little detail about what alcosynth actually is, how it works or how it might help … a person would consume only milligrams of alcosynth, Nutt said, adding that it’s nearly calorie-free. … when alcosynth is broken down in the body, the breakdown does not produce a compound called acetaldehyde, as alcohol does. … the compounds in alcosynth, like those in alcohol, will mimic the neurotransmitter GABA, which can cause a reduction in anxiety.

    Get your oxymorons from a “libertarian think tank”, not your health advice.

    Personally, I think I’ll let a few million other people do the guinea-pig work on this one, thanks just the same.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    I love alcohol. Vodka, gin, whisky, brandy, wine. Great stuff. My problem years* were when I used it as self-medication. Hugely bad idea. The trick, if you like the stuff as much as I do, is to moderate your input and avoid it when you’re depressed. And if you can’t comfortably accommodate it in your life, just don’t drink. Much easier said than done, I know.

    *It was actually touch and go for a while.

  9. starskeptic says

    Dunc @6
    Tabby Lavalamp @1 Asked,
    “If I don’t like something that has no benefits to me, why would I keep consuming it until I develop a taste?”
    — which makes your response a non sequitur…

  10. Dunc says

    starskeptic, @ #10: No, I don’t think it does. My point is simply that it is perfectly possible to learn to like something that you initially disliked, and that by doing so, you expand the range of things you like, which is generally a good thing.

  11. flex says

    I like to drink. Coming home after a really tough day with a customer, a double-martini can help take the anger and edge away. I don’t make them strong, I use a 1:1 mix which everyone tells me is wrong, but I like them that way. Or a G&T on a hot summer day is refreshing without feeling bloated (which all beers can do). But I love me some beer too, and hard ciders.

    And I regularly have whisky and soda’s, almost daily, but they are also weak. One shot whisky to 12oz of soda water is about my mix.

    I’ve almost never had a problem with drinking too much, and those times have generally occurred in social situations rather than drinking alone. I don’t think I’ve felt tipsy from drinking in years, and my kidneys were just tested and they are fine.

    I am not advocating people start drinking, to each their own. If you don’t like it, either the taste or the affects, then don’t use it. But you can enjoy a recreational drug responsibly, I do so. I expect that many people use other drugs, legal or not, responsibly. I’ve read articles in the New Yorker which describe heroin users in New York who get a hit once on Friday evenings, but the rest of the week they don’t want the drug.

    I expect that should other recreational drugs become legal, people who abuse them may end up on the ER along with the drunks. But the solution to that problem is not to make all drugs illegal, but to create a society which can identify people abusing substances, from heroin to chocolate, and get them treatment.

  12. says

    I’ve only been slightly drunk once in 56 years and didn’t enjoy the loss of cognitive ability. It is quite difficult at parties to have to continually push away the alcohol offered you by the other party goers, but it gets easier as you get older and grumpier. A glass of white wine two or three times a year is nice and quite enough for me. I have an older brother who as a young adult liked to get drunk at parties and relied on me to load him into the back of his van and drive home. I’d leave him sleeping it off in the back of the van in the driveway and go to bed. A taste that I never got fond of.

  13. Steve Cameron says

    I used to drink — not as much for the enjoyment as for the social lubrication — but about 7 years ago I suddenly started to get “red wine headaches” whenever I drank any kind of alcohol. It didn’t take long to me to wean myself off of it completely, and I can’t say it’s been a loss. My nightclubbing days were already more or less behind me, and on the rare occasion that I need something to pep me up or loosen my inhibitions a coffee (which I don’t drink regularly) or a little bit of marijuana (soon to be legal in Canada) does the trick. When I see my friends who still tie one on every weekend, I certainly don’t envy their bulging bellies and ruddy complexions.

    Anyways, there sure are a lot of teetotalers who follow your blog, Mano! There’s something in that about great minds no doubt….

  14. says

    I’m not really a huge fan of alcohol myself (you might infer my preferred vice from my ‘nym …..) though I do enjoy a half of Real Ale from time to time. For the taste, not for the effects — although some of them can slip down rather too easily for their percentage. And living only a stone’s throw from Burton-on-Trent, the Brewing Capital of the World, in a city with a very active Campaign for Real Ale, I am literally spoiled for choice.

    I also don’t believe anyone should be discriminated against for choosing not to drink, or take drugs, or for knowing and honouring their own limits; nor that the ability to consume large amounts of substances is anything to be celebrated. (Then again, that’s precisely what Miss Can’t-Handle-a-Full-Pint would say, isn’t it?)

  15. says

    I did the math on the french figures and it’s slightly less than a cup of wine per day (US measurement). So a smallish glass. If at that rate you still see massively higher rates of liver problems, I think the “one glass a day for health” is pretty well debunked. But we do lots of unhealthy stuff in life, which I don’t have a problem with. Just know what you’re doing.

    What surprises me here is the number of teetotalers -- myself included. I wonder what the numbers are on that in the atheoskeptisphere, how they compare to the general public, and whether there’s a difference between sides of the rift. I can think of drinkers and non-drinkers on both sides, but still think it might be fun to see the information, if it was possible.

  16. Mano Singham says

    Great American Satan,

    The average though is just that, an average. Such statistics are typically highly skewed. Presumably most people drink less than that and some drink a lot more and the latter are the ones who are having the problems.

  17. Mark Dowd says

    Because it expands the range of things you enjoy.

    Did you miss the “has no benefit” part?

    There are a million other non-alcoholic drinks that you can choose to expand your horizons toward. The only reason to choose alcohol is to enjoy the cognitive impairment that comes with it.

    And if you can’t comfortably accommodate it in your life, just don’t drink. Much easier said than done, I know.

    It’s pretty easily done too. Just repeat the phrase “No, I am not going to drink” as often as necessary until they finally read between the lines and shut up.

    My dad once repeated about 8 times in a row variations of “I brought hamburgers home from Grandma’s house, do you want some? They’re in the back seat of the truck” while swaying and almost falling asleep standing up. That’s supposed to be fun?

    Addictive drugs are poison. Fuck alchohol.

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