Alcohol – the new opium of the masses?

June 3, 2010

The debate about the costs of alcohol has been resurrected today by the NICE report ( that recommends that the price of alcohol should be regulated according the concentration of alcohol in the drink. Obvious you might think – why should there be differences in the pricing of the active drug component of different drinks – since the effects of the drug are simply and causally related to the dose taken?  Yet when the Scottish parliament attempted to bring in this as law last year, the Labour party blocked it on the grounds that it would penalise the poorest members of society. A truly bizarre idea that is wrong in both fact and in principle. The poor who are dependent on alcohol find this addiction eats up their income in the same way as the costs of tobacco used to until ten years ago when the original New Labour government put up the price and drove down use. What is never discussed is why alcohol use should not be price sensitive when tobacco use is, probably because it is well known that both are equally susceptible to cost controls.

Today we have a repetition of this intellectual dishonesty but this time from the drinks industry. In response to the NICE report we heard the usual mealy-mouthed protestations that there is no evidence that unit pricing reduces intake.  This statement is technically correct since it’s never been explicitly tried but already alcohol is priced through taxation according to strength. Beers are priced lower than wine which in turn is cheaper than spirits, and people do tend to drink lesser volumes of the more expensive formulation. Moreover the “lack of evidence” claim is an attempted distraction as there is overwhelming proof from many countries over many centuries that increasing the price of alcohol lessens intake.

On top of this we get the claim that alcohol dependent people would not be deterred by price increases so the policy wouldn’t work anyway. Personal anecdotes of dependent drinkers who claim that price wouldn’t deter them are wheeled to support the industry position. What is conveniently overlooked is that most drinkers are not dependent and so are price sensitive and this particularly applies to the young and novice drinkers. The rise of youth drinking is directly related to the reduction of the real price of alcohol that has occurred over the past twenty years. Increasing the cost of alcohol will therefore reduce the rising wave of binge drinking in the young with its accompanying toll of deaths, disability and enduring medical complications. It will also have a minor, but likely significant, effect to reduce drinking in the older age groups which are increasingly experiencing alcohol-related heart and liver disease.

There can be no moral argument for some forms of alcohol, such as 8% cider,  to cost less than a fifth of the same amount of alcohol in wine or spirits when the intoxicating value is the same. The health effects are these ciders are therefore 5x more damaging than those of comparable strength drinks which is why they make a major impact on our health care costs.  Alcohol related damage in the UK runs to tens of billions of pounds a year so each middle class wine drinking tax payer is paying thousands of pounds in taxation to cover this. Most would surely agree that a small hike in the costs of alcohol that significantly reduced overall alcohol consumption and health damage would make economic sense.


9 Responses to “Alcohol – the new opium of the masses?”

  1. Richard Kemp Says:

    The URL of this site is really not very catchy.

  2. CommunityCriminal Says:

    Hi probably fallen out of the box never mind thinking outside of it, something i would like to understand about the effects of ethanol on the human body mainly the endocannabinoid system, we know that alcohol destroys in the short term CB receptors in the brain I would also presume the effects would be simultaneous through out the body with EC receptors and proteins being destroyed throughout the network.

    Is a hangover the decimation of the endocannabinoid network, which i believe takes about 36 hours to full bring itself back up to natural levels, if so will the heavy use of alcohol by young people lead to psychological problems in themselves and especially with females the developing fetus andpossably contribut to many of the other nervous and cell/protein/receptor illness that we see?.

  3. jccoh Says:

    Does anyone know what happened to Prof Nutts synthetic alcohol? There was so much publicity about it in the new year then it all went quiet.

  4. John E Remlap Says:

    Synthetic Alcohol was a brilliant idea because its not a nasty bad “drug” its a happy form of booze! thats better!, healthier!, funner than booze! yes please. I already do synthetic alcohol. Theyre called drugs and theyre fine but i think you could sell “synthenol” better to the daily mailers.

  5. Curvyblonde Says:

    Alcohol is a dangerous and addictive substance. No user sets out to become addicted to any substance including alcohol and those that describe themselves as ‘moderate’, ‘responsible’ or ‘sensible’ users of alcohol in any quantity should consider themselves at risk of becoming addicted, as are users of any insidiously addictive substance, legal or otherwise.
    To describe minimum alcohol pricing as a ‘punishment’ is missing the point; minimum alcohol pricing is and should justifiably be a premium paid by those who wish to partake in an activity that can and does damage their health and ruin theirs and others’ lives at great cost to the NHS and the fabric of our increasingly desperate society.
    If those that describe themselves as ‘moderate’, ‘responsible’ or ‘sensible’ drinkers can’t afford to absorb the cost of minimum pricing then they are obviously drinking too much!

  6. CommunityCriminal Says:

    if you look at the price v sales of alcohol since 1967 the price has only ever fallen while the amount drunk has gone up, even when vat and other taxes are added its still the cheapest socially acceptable poison on the market.
    I find it amusing that 15% alcohol wash is dispensed at hospitals to act as a biological kill all..If it kills stuff that your body cant fight off what does it do to the body…. ?

  7. admin Says:

    David Nutt:
    2. CommunityCriminal – Very interesting comments about endogenous cannabinoids and alcohol. One of the sad consequences of the rejection of remonabant by the FDA is that all other companies with cannabis antagonists have stopped their development. This makes it virtually impossible for us to test out these sorts of theories now. Our own research is strongly suggestive that alcohol dependence is in part driven by disregulation of the endorphin system and we would dearly love to study the cannabis one as well.

    Re. alcohol as an antiseptic, of course you’re right, and the toxicity of alcohol which makes it a viable antiseptic is one of the main reasons behind my statement that if it were to be discovered now, it could never be licenced as a medicine or foodstuff.

  8. CommunityCriminal Says:

    Thanks Dave my understanding of this stems from trying to understand why i need antidepressants, over the years i have done most of them and all carried very similar side effects for me but with variance in the new symptom from strong nausea to overeating to impotence and incontinence and random infections skin flare ups (immune response) etc. then i stumbled on a paper which covered cb receptors and anti depressants and how they make receptors but fail to provide the food as i call it for them. So now ive come to a theory that, the upset in the body caused by them is overpopulation throughout the Endocannabinoid network. so now i treat with lots of cannabis and a little antidepressant with no side effects other than a smile.

    So anyways got any good papers on the Endocannabinoid network as they all well hidden on the old internet or is that suppressed shrugs ..

    Keep up the good fight on how we tickle our receptors

  9. Divesh Baxani Says:

    It is an obvious statement, but public opinion is thee prime factor in all of this. Alcohol is not considered a drug and is normalized by everyone. As a biomedical student in London, it is very interesting to see students with outstanding knowledge on drugs and how they affect the body, but will still binge drink every weekend and condemn the use of other drugs namely cannabis, which is another important subject of study nowadays in health science degrees. I do not consider this hypocresy, and if it is, I do not think that it is wrong for example, for healthcare employees to smoke or drink. But I do think that these students are blinded by the normalization of alcohol as a fundamental part of society, and the use of other drugs as for misfits or outlaws. Maybe this is an example of 1984’s “doublethink”.
    I personally think that it is still yet to point out what is it exactly that drives poeple towards unresponsable use of alcohol. Physical addiction is not a problem for regular, young binge drinkers, and it is easy to talk about psychological addiction. But why is the same psychological addiction normalized and present to such an extent in Britain and not other European countries?

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