This was an excellent interview with Professor David Nutt in March looking at the seduction of the drinks industry. The diagram to the left is the recorded alcohol by capita consumption in litres of pure alcohol and as you can see the UK is one of the highest.
You’re waking up at midday. You’ve been sleeping off the antics of last night, in which there was undeniably a lot of alcohol involved. Facebook and Snapchat have begun heralding relics of the night that you failed to commit to memory. Your friends will soon be helping you piece together the rest with embarrassing stories, and a good laugh will be had by all. We know drinking gets us in trouble, and it’ll do so again. But maybe we need to have a serious look at it.
“People know it’s dangerous, I don’t think they know how dangerous it is.” David Nutt is a professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. Aside from his research into the neural circuitry involved in anxiety and addiction, Nutt spends a lot of time on public outreach, giving lectures and media broadcasts. He aims to set the record straight about the evidence on drug and alcohol use – evidence and not exaggeration as he is clear to point out. “There’s new data which shows that alcohol is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 50.” Nutt continues. “And it’s going to be the leading cause of death for women as well. The first thing [people] need to know is that it is dangerous.”
Over 87 per cent of the British population drink. A great deal of those will drink to excess, particularly students. What needs to be done to make the dangers more widely understood? Nutt suggests that the sources of our drinking may be much more sinister than previously thought.
“Modern drinking is being essentially subsidised by tax payers. The reason you guys drink more than I drank when I was a student is because in real terms alcohol is a third of the price of what it was when I was at university. And then we drank heavily. Alcohol is disproportionately cheap. And it’s cheap because the drinks industry has lied to us about the harms… and it’s also perpetuated this myth that there’s a lot of benefits from drinking and that’s not true.”
Throughout history, alcohol has been widely prescribed for various medicinal purposes. Brandy for fainting, Guinness for tuberculosis, gin for fevers. Even today, the media frequently produces claims about the benefits of alcohol – protection from cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes being most popular. On his blog, drugscience.org, Professor Nutt hopes to clear up confusion surrounding these myths by providing drug information supported by the scientific research. “They need to know that they’ve been seduced into drinking by the drinks industry. They’ve been sold this myth that alcohol is almost a necessity in life – the only way you can have fun is through drink… alcohol is the opium of the masses. It’s become a necessity and the access has been made more available. What we’ve got to do is get people to invest in change so alcohol is more expensive and we should be drinking better quality alcohol.”
But how can we even begin changing a drinking culture that’s so firmly ingrained in our social norms? Nutt suggests we need to look no further than the situation across the pond. “The American drinking experiment has been one of the most remarkable health interventions in the world.” Back in the USA in the 1980s, the organisation Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) lobbied the US Department of Transport to increase the drinking age. Slowly, states began increasing their drinking age, until eventually a federal law was passed in 1984 that raised the drinking age across all states to 21. A 2014 review suggests that since the implication of this law, the USA has seen a huge reduction in road traffic accidents linked to alcohol and many lives have been spared as a result.
“The reason that works is because every year you get older you get considerably more sensible”, suggests Nutt. “So the longer you delay people from taking drugs the less damage they get from drinking.”
From current research, the neuroscience behind this phenomenon has been well described. It is thought that in adolescent development, the mesolimbic system has a greater need for reward fulfillment. This comes at a time when the prefrontal cortex is still underdeveloped, thus lowering your ability to make informed decisions. As a result, adolescents are more likely to engage in impulsive behavior and risk-taking. All this considered, Nutt recognises the obvious protestations against raising the legal age. Not least to do with free will. “I can see the arguments against it. I can see if you can go and get blown up in Afghanistan maybe it’s fair that you should drink. I can see the arguments against it, I just think it’s a discussion that needs to be had in a mature way.”
Nutt went on to give us some staggering statistics about the toxicity of alcohol. “You know the maximum annual exposure levels to toxins – poisons get into water, you can’t get water pure so there’s stuff in there like benzene, all sorts of shit in water, right? If you apply the same rule to alcohol – the maximum safe dose of alcohol per year is a glass of wine. So we make enormous exceptions for alcohol. Isn’t that staggering? It is truly remarkable how we close both our eyes when we talk about alcohol toxicity.”
You can read the rest of the article here and the following presentation is well worth your time 🙂