Sunday, November 07, 2010

Alcohol: The Most Anti-Social Drug

This week's Lancet, the British medical journal, drives a silver spike into the heart of the undead myth that alcohol is the lubricant of sociability and good fellowship.  A systematic comparative ranking of 20 different addictive drugs found that alcohol is the most harmful drug, more harmful than heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamines.

The study, by an industry-independent panel of scientific experts, ranked drugs in terms of their harm to the user and their harm to others.

Heroin, crack, and methamphetamine scored higher than alcohol in harm to the user.  But alcohol's score on the scale of harm to others was double that of heroin and crack, the next leading chemicals, so that when the scores of harm to others and harm to self were combined, alcohol led the sordid parade of harmful consequences by nearly twenty points.

A key point in alcohol marketing is social bonding.  Alcohol is said to promote romantic linkups, male bonding, business networking, and general friendly togetherness.  It's sold as the antidote to the isolation, alienation, and competitiveness that make so many people feel lonely even in crowds.   The industry spends billions every year trying to persuade us that if we'd all drink together, we'd all be happy together.

Not so, found the panel of medical experts.  The group evaluated the harm each drug caused to others in terms of physical and psychological injury, crime, environmental damage, family adversities, international damage, economic cost, and damage to community.  The panel also ranked social harms such as the loss of tangibles and loss of relationships.

Alcohol led all other drugs in measure of injury to others, family adversities, economic cost, and harm to the community. In other words, the person under the influence of alcohol caused the most bloodshed, broken families, and other mayhem to economic and social life.

The Lancet study corroborates other, similar studies conducted by other scientists independent of the alcoholic beverage industry, and cited in the Lancet article.  This relatively recent group of studies moves beyond older research which looked at drug consequences more narrowly, in terms of a single factor, such as drug-related deaths.

The finding that alcohol is a more harmful drug in society than heroin and crack cocaine upsets some deep seated stereotypes.  We've been taught to identify the "drug problem" with hard drug users, and we've been led to believe that most of these are black and socially marginal.

This research says that society's drug problem is really first and foremost an alcohol problem, and that you'll find the most dangerous drug addicts among outwardly respectable middle class whites.

That isn't really news to those who have attended most any addiction recovery support group meeting.  How many stories of hospital visits, court dates, divorces, abandoned children, lost jobs, and other chaos do you need to hear before you realize that the slick TV ads for alcoholic beverages are lies?

Even in parts of the recovery subculture, the alcoholics have tended to turn up their noses at the heroin and crack addicts. This elitist bias underlies the segregation of the legacy support groups into separate alcohol and "narcotics" branches.  (Modern groups such as LifeRing include both alcohol and other drug users.)  Now science is turning this conceit upside down.

True, the heroin and crack users have nothing to be proud of.  But the drug that really tears apart the bonds of society doesn't come in a syringe or a pipe, it comes in a bottle.

[First published in on Nov. 7 2010]

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