The biggest, most destructive drinking game of all

There is a ubiquitous, wildly popular pink elephant in the room. The “bad news” about alcohol keeps rolling in, but boy oh boy, it’s a whole lot easier to ignore it. In November 2010, The Guardian reported the results of a study produced by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and published in the Lancet. The study suggested that alcohol was “the most dangerous drug in the UK” by a fair margin, more holistically destructive than even heroin, cocaine and tobacco. Late last week, research conducted by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Project (EPIC) was released, finding that some 13,000 cancers each year in the United Kingdom are likely traceable back to people’s drinking habits. As Sarah Boseley reports, even small or moderate levels of consumption (e.g. 2 daily drinks for men and 1 for women) appears to significantly increase the risk of cancer, particularly in the mouth, oesophagus, voicebox and pharynx.

Clearly, the prisms through which governments, societies and indeed individuals across the world view drugs are incredibly distorted. It’s not over-egging it to suggest that triple or quadruple standards are in play. In the red corner, we have dangerous, illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine which are almost universally considered globally to be “bad” drugs, with stiff legal penalties imposed for both possession and trafficking. About the length of a good jab away, we have cannabis: still an illegal substance in most jurisdictions, but broadly becoming acceptable for medicinal purposes, and widely viewed as a much less dangerous drug than so-called “Class A” drugs, as they are known in the UK.

Taking a few more drowsy steps across the ring, we have tobacco; once upon a time, a wildly popular, publicly accepted drug, but now suffering from pariah status. It’s widely accepted that prohibition is not a reasonable or workable solution, so instead governments across the world have sought to educate people about the dangers of smoking and to incrementally legislate tobacco towards the margins of society, through advertising bans, usage restrictions, and even, more recently, packaging controls. There is a general sense in the public that governments are doing the right thing in engaging in these sorts of “soft touch” draconian measures. Of course, when it comes down to it, smokers are effectively being instructed that they are only allowed to poison themselves and others in a strictly regulated environment according to certain conditions – which in a more straightforward world, wouldn’t pass the laugh test as a final solution to a public policy problem relating to a specific product. Let’s not even get started on government’s implied preference for smoking over euthansia.

In the blue corner, finally, we have alcohol: the widely available, gloriously advertised, practically unrestricted opiate of the masses. The short-term health implications of alcohol usage are negligible, but the long-term health implications and indeed the sociological implications are very slowly coming to be understood as disastrous. We have to assume, given its ubiquity, that alcohol touches many more people’s lives negatively than either heroin or cocaine. It’s the questions that we don’t really know the answers to, or don’t really care to know the answers to, that provide the kicker. What proportion of assaults, domestic violence cases, thefts, killings, rapes and car accidents have alcohol abuse at their root? What is the annual cost to the health sector of treating patients who have suffered one of the wrongs mentioned, developed liver disease, or indeed a form of alcohol-related cancer? How can we ever hope to measure or quantify the distress and pain caused by people (particularly in struggling socio-economic areas) who abuse alcohol and make decisions that emotionally or physically damage their friends, families, and communities?

I am sure that in the heyday of tobacco, during the middle of the twentieth century, the idea that one of the world’s favourite substances would eventually be unmasked as a “bad drug” would have been laughed off by many. It’s hard not to wonder what the next fifty or sixty years will bring for the alcohol industry, given the pressures being applied to governments across the world to be “tough on crime” whilst also reducing public spending, impacting areas of public policy like health and policing. These pressures directly collide with the enormous popularity of alcohol and its acceptance as an everyday recreational substance.

If the somewhat rapid stigmatisation of tobacco is any guide, today’s blockbuster alco-dollar ads and “drink, drink, drink … spew” popular culture could eventually recede into the annals of human history; just another of those crazy, stupid things that people did back in those days before they knew any better or society chided them into behaving differently.

No, (sadly) I’m not holding my breath either… er, drink?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo