Alcohol: Death Warrant for a Generation?
The death of Amy Winehouse in July of this year shook the nation. As Amy joined the tragedy-shrouded 27 Club via alcohol poisoning, Britain was once again forced to acknowledge dangers the younger generation are facing with regard to alcohol.
An employee of Alcoholics Anonymous, who prefers to remain unnamed, confirmed that the occurrence of under 25s at AA meetings is happening “more than ever.” He added, “I first became sober at the age of 17, but these days young people just can’t seem to do it.” While many young people regularly binge drink (more in the UK than in any other country in Europe, according to an NHS report on binge drinking in the UK and on the continent), few seem to pay attention to the risks.
Yet awareness of the threat alcohol poses is hardly a new revelation. In 2009, a 22-year-old alcoholic died in hospital, after a 10-week battle with severe liver cirrhosis. While this is one of the more extreme cases of alcohol-related fatalities in young, British citizens, this tragedy made yet another example of the all-too-real dangers that alcohol poses.
Earlier this year, Dr Sarah Wollaston submitted a private member’s bill to Parliament, requesting the restriction of alcohol advertising to youths in Britain. On her website, Wollaston discusses her reasons, at the forefront of which stand some unavoidable statistics; “13 young people will die this week as a result of alcohol.” She goes on to say, “Nearly a quarter of all deaths of young people aged between 15 and 24 are caused by alcohol.”
Wollaston is not the only one campaigning for the alteration of alcohol laws, with several studies spurring calls for drug classifications as a whole to be reassessed. Last year, ex-Government drugs advisor, David Nutt co-authored a study entitled ‘Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis’, which was published in leading medical journal, The Lancet. The study ranks 20 drugs on the dangers they pose both to users and the people around them, taking into account a range of aspects, from psychological dependence, to crime rates and environmental damage. While heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine proved most harmful to individuals, alcohol trumped every other substance with an overall harm score of 72 (heroin scored 55, crack cocaine; 54).
In a study by Jack E. Henningfield, titled, ‘Is Nicotine Addictive? It Depends on Whose Criteria You Use’, alcohol and nicotine were compared to cocaine, heroin, caffeine and cannabis using 5 criteria: dependence, withdrawal, tolerance, reinforcement and intoxication. While nicotine topped all others for dependence, alcohol scored as affecting the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms, as well as the most dangerous overall substance after heroin. These results raise some questions as to why alcohol and nicotine are the only widely available, legal substances on the market.
Professor Robert S. Gable, who is a Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California, has also partaken in several studies, which question current drug classifications. Following his study, ‘Comparison of Acute Lethal Toxicity of Commonly Abused Psychoactive Substances,’ which proved alcohol to be one of the easiest drugs to overdose on (just 10 times the effective dose), and LSD (1000) and cannabis (1000 +) to be the hardest, Gable wrote an article for American Scientist entitled ‘The Toxicity of Recreational Drugs’. Throughout the article, Gable discusses his findings at length. Stating that alcohol is “more lethal than many other commonly used substances.” He goes on to suggest, “if alcohol were a newly formulated beverage, it’s high toxicity and addiction potential would surely prevent it from being marketed as food or drug.”
According to the ‘Econometric Analysis of Alcohol Consumption in the UK’, which was published in 2010, UK households spend around £15 billion every year on the consumption of alcoholic beverages – approximately 18% of their total expense for food and drink. Moreover, in 2009-10, this expenditure generated £9 billion in tax revenue, which was 2% of the total tax intake. With figures like these pulling perspective both on the high intake of alcohol in Britain, and the extortionate tax which is placed on alcohol, who wouldn’t beg the question: What are the Government’s true motives behind questionably lax alcohol policies? When questioned about the matter, the Home Office refused to comment.
Across the country, alcohol continues to wreak havoc on the lives of thousands. Timothy Harris, a Police Sergeant based in Kent, admits that he deals with young people under the influence of alcohol “daily.” The situations instigated by the misuse of alcohol are extensive; “from drink driving to suicide, alcohol poisoning, assaults.” Hospitals are equally overwhelmed with a high intake of alcohol-induced cases. Christine Clift, who is a Biomedical Scientist, located at Heartlands Hospital in Sutton Coldfield admits that there has been “a huge uprising in the amount of young people coming in with alcohol related problems.” Dealing specifically with the after effects of extensive alcohol abuse, “such as liver disease and oesophageal variecies,” Christine constantly encounters often heart-wrenching cases. “Several years ago we had a young woman in who’d gotten alcoholic liver disease. She had a young child, and was very ill - in and out of intensive care with most of her organs failing. She basically bled to death, leaving a very traumatised child.”
As far as substance classifications are concerned, however, while alcohol is unquestionably dangerous, it is often difficult to accurately compare the consequences with those of other substances. Given that many of the facts and statistics, which raise the question of current classifications’ accuracy, are taken from studies which compare alcohol to other substances, the consumption of alcohol in comparison to heroin, for example, is far more common, thus making it difficult to accurately gauge the repercussions of each substance comparatively. In ‘The Toxicity of Recreational Drugs’, Gable agrees, adding his own example; “… atropine is more toxic than alcohol, but more deaths will be reported for alcohol than for atropine because so many more people get drunk than ingest jimsonweed.”
Furthermore, there lies the issue of how dangerous each substance becomes when combined with another. Gable confirms that overdoses, more often than not, involve the combination of two substances. Though one of these is “usually alcohol”, the overall toxicity is often unknown. “In short: When psychoactive substances are combined, all bets are off.” Sergeant Harris confirms that he often encounters similar issues when substances are taken together. While he admits that he encounters illegal substances as often as he encounters alcohol, he is of the opinion that “the worst situation is when alcohol and drugs are mixed.” He continues, “this seems to produce unpredictable results and the alcohol can mask the symptoms of other substances.”
Not to mention, of course, that consequences from illegal substances can often be just as awful, if not worse, than those induced by alcohol. Mephedrone, often referred to as Meow Meow, was illegalized in April of this year, but has been connected to almost 100 deaths since it’s emergence onto the market 2 years ago. Few will forget 18-year-old Leah Betts, who died in 1995 after taking a single ecstasy pill and drinking so much water she essentially drowned her brain.
Some action is being taken to minimalise the damaging effects of alcohol. The introduction of the drinking banning order (DBO) in 2009 was designed to punish drinkers who are consistently responsible for alcohol-related crimes and disturbances. While met with mixed responses (Liberty’s director of policy, Isabella Sankey, referred to the policy as a “gimmick”), the fundamental purpose of the DBO – to pinpoint (and protect the public from) inebriated hooligans – is sound, and certainly suggests that our Government is aware of the issue at hand.
A 2010 health report released by the House of Commons alerted authorities to the extremely low price point of alcohol – especially in supermarkets. While Scotland is in the process of introducing a minimum pricing legislation, Westminster is considering options including cracking down on licensing. . According to parliament.uk, since the 2003 Licensing Act, the number of licensed pubs in the UK has dropped by approximately 6,100. While the reasons for failing to affect a minimum pricing legislation are in favour of consumers who buy - but do not abuse - alcohol, Westminster has fallen under criticism for it’s decision. Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, Professor Ian Gilmore, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that opposing a minimum pricing legislation will “will have no effect at all on the health of this nation.” He did, however, admit, “It’s a step in the right direction, but I have to say it’s an extremely small step.”
While many still question the minimal action taken to prevent the accessibility of alcohol in light of the dangers, the idea that the Government prolongs this issue for the sake of tax revenue is controversial. While it is undeniable that alcohol tax provides a large portion of total tax-related income, given the sheer volume of money, which must be fed back into the system in order to amend the losses alcohol-related crime and fatalities cause, there may actually be minimal profit gained from the increasing taxes on alcohol.
Regardless of the motives behind maintaining the accessibility and legalisation of such a dangerous substance, it is unavoidable that current drug dogma does not correlate with the risk some substances pose. Psilocybin mushrooms are a Class B substance, only recently downgraded from Class A. A perfect example of illogical classification in light of the dangers, in both Robert S. Gable’s ‘Comparison of acute lethal toxicity of commonly abused psychoactive substances’ and David Nutt’s ‘Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis’ psilocybin mushrooms are proven to be the least dangerous participating substance.
Taboos that circulate around most illegal substances often seem to justify the extensive use of alcohol instead. If alcohol-related risks were heeded, and a ban were indeed placed, the potential outcome is unclear. The afore-mentioned 2010 health report included in it’s conclusions, “The fact that alcohol has been enjoyed by humans since the dawn of civilization has tended to obscure the fact that it is also a toxic, dependence inducing teratogenic and carcinogenic drug to which more than 3 million people in the UK are addicted.” Alcohol is so deeply ingrained within day-to-day rituals; a cold beer on a summer’s day, a glass of red wine with dinner, champagne for celebrations – even Santa Claus sips on the odd glass of whiskey, according to urban legend. Not to mention the thank-God-it’s-Friday mentality, which commonly makes good the first post-work drink of the weekend. We question the legality of one dangerous substance, yet perhaps the real question is this: Do we live in a society that could live without an accepted method of escapism?