Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dr. David Nutt on Alcohol

Rebutting industry myths.

A couple of years ago, the European Alcohol Policy Alliance, known as EuroCare, put together a brochure addressing the common messages the liquor industry attempts to drive home through its heavy spending on advertising. The messages are not just designed to sell product, but also to influence alcohol policy at the political level. According to EuroCare, the “industry”—the alcohol and tobacco companies—“has traditionally worked closely together, sharing information and concerns about regulation. They have used similar arguments to defend their products in order to prevent or delay restrictions being placed on them.”

I wrote a blog post on EuroCare’s list of alcohol untruths called “7 Myths the Alcohol Industry Wants You to Believe." Here they are:

Message 1: Consuming alcohol is normal, common, healthy, and very responsible.
Message 2: The damage done by alcohol is caused by a small group of deviants who cannot handle alcohol.
Message 3: Normal adult non-drinkers do not, in fact, exist
Message 4: Ignore the fact that alcohol is a harmful and addictive chemical substance (ethanol) for the body.
Message 5: Alcohol problems can only be solved when all parties work together.
Message 6: Alcohol marketing is not harmful. It is simply intended to assist the consumer in selecting a certain product or brand.
Message 7: Education about responsible use is the best method to protect society from alcohol problems.

Recently, I ran across a great response to these same 7 myths by Dr. David Nutt, the British psychiatrist perhaps best known in the states as the scientist who got fired a few years ago from his post on the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Nutt’s primary sin was to suggest that, on a straightforward calculation of risks and harms, horseback riding was probably a more dangerous activity than taking the drug Ecstasy. The Home Secretary at the time insisted that you couldn’t compare a legal activity to an illegal one, or something like that, and Nutt compounded his sins by suggesting that marijuana was a safer drug than alcohol. British politicians took a serious dislike to him, the more so since most of the published medical science was on his side. After the dust settled, Nutt was one of the primary founders of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD), formed to offer alternative views on drugs and addiction grounded in science.

Anyway, in his book, Drugs Without the Hot Air, Nutt has his own responses to the 7 Myths, which I excerpt here:

1. Consuming Alcohol is Normal: It’s normal, so long as you have the “normal” high-activity variant of the ALDH2 enzyme. If you don’t have that form of the enzyme, Nutt reminds his readers, as many Asians and Aleuts do not, then alcohol will affect you quite non-normally through the so-called alcohol flush reaction. Moreover, many cultures and societies unfamiliar with its effects “suffer hugely when new types of alcohol appear, particularly if they are aggressively marketed.”

2. Alcohol damage is caused by a small group of deviants: According to Dr. Nutt, statistics show that “millions of people, NOT a tiny minority, suffer harm from their own alcohol consumption, or cause harm to others…. It is the everyday drinking of people who have come to see alcohol as an essential part of life rather than the luxury it used to be, that has created a spike in cancers and stomach problems, and will see liver disease match heart disease as the leading cause of death in the UK by 2020.”

3. Normal adult non-drinkers do not exist: The alcohol industry is forever reminding politicians of how unpopular alcohol restrictions are to the voting populace. “The existence of non-drinkers obviously threatens this portrayal of society, so the industry tends to dismiss them as having something wrong with them. While some teetotalers are recovering alcoholics, many others have made a positive choice not to drink.” And there are others, I would add, often referred to as “sick” teetotalers, who have quit drinking for medical reasons unrelated to alcoholism.

4. Ignore alcohol’s harm to the body: Nutt reminds us that “there is no other drug which is so damaging to so many different organ systems in the body…. Most other drugs cause damage primarily in one or two areas—heart problems from cocaine, or urinary tract problems from ketamine. Alcohol is harmful almost everywhere.”

5. Alcohol problems can be solved when everybody works together: “In practice, what the industry means by ‘working together’ is bring in voluntary codes rather than statutory regulation—solving problems through rules that the industry CHOOSES to comply with, rather than laws which they MUST comply with.”

6. Alcohol marketing is intended to assist consumers in selecting products: Specifically, 800 million British pounds every year for advertising and promotion, according to Nutt. That’s just the kind of civic-minded bunch those alcohol sellers are. The reality, of course is that “marketing communications do have a marked effect on consumption…. All this further entrenches the false division between alcohol and illegal drugs, persuades people that consuming alcohol is safe, and makes realistic discussions of the harm alcohol causes very difficult.”

7. Education about responsible use is the best approach: “It is useful for the drinks industry,” Nutt explains, “to emphasize the value of education, because it takes the focus off regulation…. There is also extensive evidence gathered by the WHO from around the world, showing that merely providing information and education without bringing in other policy measures doesn’t change people’s drinking behavior.”

As I wrote in my original post: Who could be against the promotion of responsible alcohol use? Irresponsible zealots and deviants, that’s who. Why should all of us happy drinkers be made to suffer for the sins of a few rotten apples?

Indeed, all of the messages, overtly or covertly, send the same signal: You should drink more. It’s good for you.


Michelle McFadden Smith said...

Drinking is definitely not all that it's made up to be... Sure, having a few drinks every now and then may not give you a disease or make you addicted to alcohol; however, it's easier to slip into a rut if you don't keep tabs on how much and when you are drinking!

Rick Van Laan said...

I think that the media has really silenced the problems related to alcohol consumption; it's unfortunate, really. Hopefully, there will be more sites like this that promote awareness of the REAL effects of alcohol on the human body. Great article!

Laurie said...

Thanks for uncovering the truth about alcohol consumption.

We all need to be reminded that what we came to know as truth is really the result of clever marketing by alcohol companies.

I cut down my drinking a while back and is now enjoying a sane lifestyle. After reading and learning more about alcohol, I think I will gradually wane off alcohol and replace it with water!

Serg said...

Everything in moderation. Enjoy a glass of wine maybe once a week during a delicious dinner but focus daily on what really is the key to a good life, your health. Look after that and you will have wellness.

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