An Open and Nutt Case

POSTED ON 02/11/2009

Highly likely as it is that the current classification of drugs is arbitrary, it would be wrong if defending the ex-drugs tsar Professor David Nutt were to result in the demonization of alcohol per se. How easy it is to say that ‘alcohol is to blame for…etc. etc.’ without considering how it’s used and our own responsibilities. How easy to make alcohol the scapegoat for society’s ills. And how easy for a government to be seen to be doing something by introducing price controls on amounts and prices as if that were anywhere close to the root of the problem.

David Nutt himself is reported as saying that "The greatest concern to parents should be that their children do not get completely off their heads with alcohol because it can kill them ... and it leads them to do things which are very dangerous, such as to kill themselves or others in cars, get into fights, get raped, and engage in other activities which they regret subsequently. My view is that, if you want to reduce the harm to society from drugs, alcohol is the drug to target at present."

‘The drug to target’? Wow, that’s pretty emotive language coming from an academic advisor. I’m sure he’s a brilliant scientist but if you bite the hand that feeds you by flippantly overstating the case, what do you expect? And why does alcohol ‘lead them to do things which are very dangerous, such as to kill themselves or others in cars, get into fights, get raped, and engage in other activities which they regret subsequently’. Let’s go one step back and ask what was it that led them to drink that alcohol in the first place? Could it be that the children who misuse alcohol haven’t been taught how to use alcohol responsibly, and that the parents might have to shoulder some of that responsibility?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself

Philip Larkin

Parents are hardly the ones to talk. Adult alcoholism and drinking excessive alcohol are massive social problems that shouldn’t be underestimated. But alcohol consumption is on the wane, not increasing, as the current hysteria suggest. According to the latest HM Revenue & Customs data, drinking levels fell by over 8% to 3.81 litres per head in the first half of 2009 compared with 4.15 litres per head in the same period of 2008. Moral panics serve no purpose in tackling the problem. Government advisors should know better. Recognition of where the problem begins and working at ways of dealing with the root causes through education and communication are the only way of getting people to make better choices.

Alcohol is a toxin, let’s not forget, but to treat it like a poisonous snake that will inevitably bite you in the bum fails to take account of the enormous social benefits that drinking alcohol sensibly, wine in particular in my view, gives so many millions of people. After living through Prohibition in America, the Californian vintner Robert Mondavi went on a crusade in his later years promoting wine as part of a healthy lifestyle. ‘Wine is the temperate, civilized, sacred, romantic mealtime beverage recommended in the Bible’ said Mondavi, who called it ‘a liquid food that has been praised for centuries by rulers, philosophers, physicians, priests and poets for life, health and happiness.’

He was right. Wine isn’t taken in a pill to be prescribed by doctors to make you feel better. If it’s a drug, as Professor Nutt would have it, it’s not that kind of drug. Maybe he was talking about RTDs and some of the other less desirable alcoholic products to which the same noble heritage doesn't apply, in which case maybe he should have made the distinction. Wine is an agricultural product supporting a worldwide industry stretching back centuries. It has the capacity to enhance meals and social occasions, to relax and inspire and to make us feel better about ourselves and other people. Wine can do wonders for relationships and has a million positive benefits and spin-offs. Shall we talk about that, or is that too much for the ‘health’ lobby to swallow?

So yes, let’s by all means be constantly aware of the potential dangers of alcohol, and let’s not underestimate its power to cause destruction when it’s misused, but let’s also be a little bit more discerning in why and how we condemn its misuse, and let’s focus if we really want to get to the bottom of the problem, on how to get across the potential dangers. Above all though, let’s continue to celebrate one of the most civilized products, if not the most civilized, ever created by humankind and the enjoyment and positive benefits that drinking wine in a measured way can bring.

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