I suppose it was inevitable. Anti-alcohol folks have been saying for years that alcohol is the worst drug on the planet. And comparing it to heroin is not exactly new, either. A popular neo-prohibitionist PSA shows a beer bottle as a syringe to remind people that alcohol is also a drug. You can even buy bookmarks and posters of it at Face, the one-stop shop for neo-prohibitionist propaganda. Of course, aspirin is also a drug, but who would drink beer in either pill or syringe form?
The characterization of alcohol as a drug is mostly a specious one, because it ultimately depends on how you define what a drug is or how it’s used. You might be tempted to think that it’s fairly easy to explain exactly what is a “drug,” but it’s actually not. Even the most common dictionaries define it rather differently, and how people connote it varies even more widely. Some say it’s only a drug if it’s used as medicine, others any chemical substance that alters something physical, while still other definitions insist a drug is something illicit or illegal. A lot of what definition you choose is dependent on your message or what point you’re trying to make. In other words, context matters. What we can agree on — I hope — is that there are both good and bad drugs. I know there won’t be universal agreement on which is which, but that they’re not all the same I trust can be acknowledged by either side of the alcohol divide.
Today the scientific journal The Lancet published a new article entitled Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis that purports to show that alcohol is more dangerous than heroin. According to their results it is indeed claimed that alcohol is more dangerous to society and individuals than anything else on Earth, including crack, cocaine, tobacco, Ecstasy and LSD. The article — I refuse to call it a study — was authored by David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs adviser who was fired in October of last year by the British government.
Why this so-called study is garnering such media attention has to do with its volatile headline. As they say, if it bleeds it leads, and this definitely has blood on it. But it’s not exactly scientific. I’d always thought of the Lancet as one of the more rigidly scientific journals, but this gives me pause. Essentially, the way the results of this article were collected was by gathering together sixteen “experts,” specifically “members of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (an organization founded by David Nutt after his firing), including two invited specialists” who then sat down for a one-day meeting — called a “workshop” — where each of them was asked to “score 20 drugs on 16 criteria: nine related to the harms that a drug produces in the individual and seven to the harms to others. Drugs were scored out of 100 points, and the criteria were weighted to indicate their relative importance.” Well, how scientific.
So essentially this “study” is simply the scores collected by a few so-called “experts” — almost entirely made up of members of one organization thick with agenda — during a one-day retreat. That’s hardly “proof” of anything. If I were The Lancet, though, I’d be a little embarrassed about having so unscientific a piece being in my previously distinguished pages. Throughout the article, the author infuriatingly keeps referring to the results as “findings,” as if they’re a tally of something more meaningful than mere opinion. Self-fulfilling prophecy is a more reasonable assessment of their “findings.”
Here’s how they explain themselves:
The issue of the weightings is crucial since they affect the overall scores. The weighting process is necessarily based on judgment, so it is best done by a group of experts working to consensus. Although the assessed weights can be made public, they cannot be cross-validated with objective data.
They also admit that their opinionated scores only include the supposed harm of the substances they’re evaluating, and that they did not take into account any benefits, apart from admitting that some do exist.
Limitations of this approach include the fact that we scored only harms. All drugs have some benefits to the user, at least initially, otherwise they would not be used, but this effect might attenuate over time with tolerance and withdrawal. Some drugs such as alcohol and tobacco have commercial benefits to society in terms of providing work and tax, which to some extent offset the harms….
So they admit alcohol’s economic benefits, but still conveniently ignore the many health benefits of responsible, moderate consumption, including the rather important fact that most people who drink moderately will live longer than those who either totally abstain or over-indulge.
No matter, the experts conclude that both heroin and crack-cocaine are nearly a third less dangerous than alcohol. Mushrooms, they’ve declared, are the safest of all.
But essentially they’re taking the minority of people who abuse alcohol and from there go on to imply that essentially everyone who drinks alcohol exacts that same cost to themselves and society, extending the data out to include all drinkers. But that’s clearly untrue and quite ludicrous. All they’ve done is dress up opinions — and biased ones at that — and presented them as facts and findings, based solely on the idea that expert opinions are facts. That The Lancet went along with it shows how mesmerized we are by the lure of so-called, and even self-proclaimed, “expert opinions.”
The BBC even collected drinkers’ responses and one woman noted that her grandmother has had a glass of wine every single day since she was 18 and is still going strong, reasonably suggesting that she might not still be here if she’d been taking heroin every day for the same period of time. Professor Nutt won’t even concede that point, saying that it’s not necessarily true, stating that the woman’s grandmother might be better off if she’d taken the heroin instead! He says “all medicines are safe if they’re used appropriately.” Maybe, but why wouldn’t that same logic then extend to alcohol? Why can’t he concede that it’s also safe if used “appropriately?” Can anyone really believe that a prescription of heroin every day is safer than a drink or two of beer per day, just because it didn’t come from a doctor’s advice?
Is it possible there’s another reason for Professor Nutt’s war on alcohol? Well here’s at least one possibility. In December, the London Telegraph reported that Nutt was leading a team at Imperial College London in developing a synthetic alcohol, produced using chemicals related to Valium. According to the report, it “works like alcohol on nerves in the brain that provide a feeling of well-being and relaxation,” but “unlike alcohol its does not affect other parts of the brain that control mood swings and lead to addiction. It is also much easier to flush out of the body.” And because it’s “much more focused in its effects, it can also be switched off with an antidote, leaving the drinker immediately sober.” It’s not too hard to imagine that the scarier and more dangerously alcohol is perceived as a societal evil and health risk, the more customers for synthetic alcohol there would be.
No matter what his true motives, Nutt is … well, I’ve been trying to avoid this but there’s just no way around it, something of a nutter. He claims that his “findings showed that ‘aggressively targeting alcohol harms is a valid and necessary public health strategy.'” Of course, that’s been his position since well before this farce began, so again, it’s much more of an agenda in search of its own validation. Not so much a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a self-created justification for a position he already held. All he needed to do was to create the official-sounding organization “Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs” and then have them say the same thing he’s been saying all along, this time with charts and people with strings of alphabets after their names so it all sounds on the up and up. But this is just another case of the Emperor having no lab coat, and few people in the media even noticing.
UPDATE: As expected, Pete Brown has also tackled Nutt’s Lancet article and its attendant publicity in The MAIN reason Professor Nutt is bad for our health. Check it out.