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

The politics of tackling alcohol abuse

It’s probably fair to say that alcohol is both a social good and a social evil in modern society. On the positive side, a moderate intake of alcohol allows people to relax and disconnect from the stresses of their everyday lives. Although it varies from person to person and also depends on just how much you drink, there is a fairly broad consensus that drinking the “right” amount of alcohol is good for your physical health. On the flip side of the coin, alcohol use and abuse is broadly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. The negative influence that alcohol abuse has on society spans the spectrum of one’s imagination; from causing motoring accidents, through to physical assault and rape, poor financial decision-making, degraded social responsibility, and long-term illness such as coronary disease. When one considers in full the many and varied ills that alcohol abuse brings to the table, it is hard not to compare and contrast the vehemently strong anti-smoking sentiment that is palpable in modern Western societies to the fairly lackadaisical gaze with which we view alcohol abuse. It’s okay to be a raging drunk, but don’t you dare smoke!

Of late, there have been some soft murmurings around the traps that perhaps this broad public tolerance of alcohol abuse might be slowly coming to a close. In Australia, Kevin Rudd has recently announced a new advertising campaign targeting binge drinking, which is welcome, but of course, is not going to be enough in itself to make deep inroads into the problem. Over here in the UK, in handing down his first Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling has put his neck out with a slightly more practical measure and one that seems unthinkable in the political climate back home; a tax hike on alcohol:

British finance minister Alistair Darling announced on Wednesday that alcohol duty will increase by 6 percent above the inflation rate with hefty rises in beer, wine and spirits coming in at midnight on Sunday.

In his first budget, Darling told parliament that beer will rise by 4 pence a pint, cider by 3p a litre, wine by 14p a bottle and spirits by 55p a bottle, marking the first rise in duties on spirits in more than a decade.

The lift on the duties on spirits is by no means insubstantial, but one has to wonder whether these increases are really going to do anything other than increase the volume of funds flowing into the government’s coffers. An extra 4 pence on a pint of beer is not going to make anybody (particularly if they are drunk!) think twice about ordering another round. Nor is another extra 14 pence on a bottle of wine going to force the country’s chardonnay socialists and blue-bloods call it a night after the first bottle or two. You could buy seven bottles of wine before noticing that you’ve even spent a pound more than usual, which is more than enough to send most people into cloud cuckoo land.

Clearly governments have it tough politically when tackling issues related to alcohol abuse, but making inroads on this issue is a worthy endeavour for any government in today’s belligerently hedonistic world. Practical measures like tax increases might be the right path to take if implemented sensibly, in a way that people can understand and comprehend. A hardline education campaign reminding society just how much trauma is caused by well-meaning folks having too much to drink is probably just what the doctor ordered. Such a campaign has worked wonders over a period of several decades in relation to tobacco. The right campaign with strong backing from civil society can do the same for alcohol abuse.