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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

UK study claims alcohol most harmful drug

(David Nutt)

His hand shook and a cold sweat soaked his shirt. He thought of his last fix and counted the hours until he could punch out. Finally, in his Mercedes, he caressed the bottle of amber sweetness and took a sip. Calmness came over him; his hand steadied. Alcohol: a rite of passage for some college students and a form of relaxation for many adults. Could this commonly used substance be as harmful as hard drugs? According to a Nov. 1 headline in the BBC, some experts such as Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser, have identified alcohol as “more harmful than heroin.

Nutt is the co-author of a study that focuses on ranking the dangers of alcohol and other substances and published in Lancet, a medical journal. In the study, he states: “al-cohol is more harmful than heroin or crack when the overall dangers to the individual and society are considered.”

According to the BBC, this study ranked 20 drugs on a scale based on 16 criteria that weigh the harm to users and to the society as a whole.

The scoring criteria looked at the mental and physical damage, addiction, crime and costs to the economy and communities, environmental damage, and social harms including crime.

Nutt was fired in 2009 from his position as the government drugs adviser due to his views on the subject, the BBC reports.

According to Assistant Professor of Justice and Policy Studies Will Pizio, however, the government and the policymakers have had to look at this issue due to numerous alcohol-related vehicle fatalities.

“Alcohol regulations (tests and DUI penalties) have increased in the last 20 years, so this can tell you that society does care about this issue,” said Pizio. “A DUI is the gift that keeps on giving. For 5 minutes of driving, you keep paying after (fines, insurance rates increase).”

Pizio read the Nov. 1 article in the BBC and an article printed in the health section of CNN News on the same day. The CNN headline reads: “Study: Alcohol ‘most harmful drug,’ followed by crack and heroin.”

“Headlines like these catch the eye but can be misleading,” said Pizio. “Look at what (Nutt’s) saying. Don’t just read the headline, but see the overall picture.” “When you look at the social costs to society, (alcohol) has to be more harmful because the proportion of the population using alcohol is higher compared to the harder drugs,” said Pizio. “Really, it’s legal and it’s regulated.”

After seeing such a sensational headline, readers may put the article down, cross their arms, close their minds and stop reading. Further down the Nov. 1 BBC article, however, the issue of comparison is contextualized and clarified.

“Crack cocaine is more addictive than alcohol but because alcohol is so widely used there are hundreds of thousands of people who crave alcohol every day and those people will go to extraordinary lengths to get it,” Nutt said, according to the BBC. Nutt is not telling the world to switch to heavier drugs instead of alcohol or look at them as trivial or harmless.

According to the CNN article, Nutt expressed concern at the idea that he would be seen as unsympathetic to those offended by the article.

He wants those who have experienced a loss of a family member because of drugs to understand his study in its context. Again, this criterion includes social harms like crime and abuse in addition to physical and mental damage, etc.

As reflected in Nutt’s statements, his intentions were to compare the risks of these sub-stances and not to trivialize the dangers of them. Nutt is asking people to question the current drug ranking system and its criteria.

According to the BBC, Nutt wants everyone to understand the details of this study.

“It is important to separate harm to individuals and harm to society,” said Nutt.

Greensboro resident Erica Vasile, a Monmouth graduate with a master’s degree in social work, grew up with a parent who battled with alcohol and heroin addiction.

She found the article interesting because of her family connection and her position as a social worker in the school system, which she’s held for ten years.

“I completely agree with Professor Nutt,” said Vasile. “Alcohol is absolutely a drug.”

She gave many examples of different situations she has seen over the years.

“Whether it’s neglect or abuse of children while the parent is drinking, supervision issues while the parents are drinking at the club or bar, fetal alcohol syndrome, or re-sources being used to get drunk instead of providing for the children — I’ve seen it all,” said Vasile. “All for a legal drug that provides unimaginable tax monies to the government.”

Having seen both drug and alcohol addiction, Erica recognizes that harder drugs are an important issue but agrees that alcoholism is more widespread than heroin use.

“I can testify that, although we (her family) dealt with a heroin addiction for a short time, its effects were drastic,” said Vasile. “The alcoholism seems to have had a deeper impact on the family history including health of the alcoholics and their functioning in society.”

Vasile’s words are just a glimpse of the dialogue that Nutt’s controversial study has provoked.

According to the BBC, Nutt has gone on to form the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs with hopes to continue his research without political interference. The implications of his study, however, remain a sharp reminder of a widespread struggle.

The bottle lay empty on the leather seat of his car. He fumbled for his keys but his vision was blurry. He just needed to make it a few blocks to the bar, and then home.  

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