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Have we got the balance right between the ‘war on drugs’ and dealing with alcohol abuse?

Posted on 4 September 2013 | 8:09am

I am about to do some interviews about my new novel, My Name Is …, out next week, which tells the story of a young girl’s descent into alcoholism. It is a novel, a story, but I hope one that makes people think a little about their and the country’s relationship with alcohol.

Now making and selling alcohol is not illegal, and I am not suggesting it should be. Nor is drinking it, and I am not suggesting making that is made illegal either. So the big difference with illegal drugs is just that … they are illegal.

But here are some questions for you?
How many opiate/crack users do you think there are in England (2011/12 figures)? The answer is 298,752. Over a quarter of a million.
How many adults receive treatment for their drug problem? 197,110. i.e a sizeable proportion.
How much does that cost the State? Two billion pounds.

I am not criticising that use of money. But here is another set of questions.
How many people are dependent on alcohol? 1.6 million.
How many receive treatment? 108,906.
How much is spent on this? £91million.

Drugs are a real problem no doubt. But drink does more damage to marriages and families, causes more violence, more hospital admissions (1.2million), more deaths, and has a greater hold on the national life and national psyche, not least through the multi-million normalisation process of marketing and advertising.

One of the reasons I decided to make the lead character a young woman was that whereas once liver specialists said their patients were overwhelmingly male, now they are evenly split between men and women.

Here is another fact: liver disease is the only major cause of death still increasing year on year. UK deaths from cirrhosis increased more than five-fold between 1970 and 2006. Ah well, you may think, it is probably the same story around the world. But no, in France, Italy and Spain, the number of deaths has fallen by 50 per cent and we have overtaken them all.

Like I say, My Name Is … is a novel, a piece of fiction. But the facts underpinning the concern at the heart of it, about one girl’s story, are pretty scary.

  • Michele

    Do the producers of alcohol make political donations?

  • lucy

    As anyone who happens to glance over my twitter feed every now and again, you will see quite a few booze related tweets. I like a drink every now and again but because of past experiences, I don’t drink anywhere nearly as much as I used to. However, I noticed a while back that I still behave as though I’m a very social drinker ( getting to the point I promise), I encourage others to have a drink when they’ve had a bad day or are celebrating. I think it’s one of our main problems with booze, our attitude seems to be that we *need* a drink. That somehow we having a drink makes us more socially accepted. Having spoken to friends I know that some us at least are on autopilot when it comes to our attitude to booze.
    So apart from our attitude I think as a nation we’d benefit from returning to a little bit more regulation, I’m not being a killjoy and I know we’re all broke, but does booze need to be that cheap? And do we need to be able to buy it from a supermarket at any time of day or night? I wonder how many of us could give up alcohol totally for longer than a month. I genuinely don’t think I could, so maybe it’s time I did.

  • lucy

    remind me to proof read my post next time

  • Andrew Brown

    Isn’t part of the problem that policy makers think about drugs differently depending on whether they’re legal or illegal, so there are different strategies for drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Perhaps if we were able to persuade them to look at it from the point of view of how society wants to intervene – prevention, treatment, law – that might make sense.

    As someone who’s professional role is in drug and alcohol prevention I know that the best interventions work across all a range of substances and often don’t focus on one or the other.

    I also know that if you look at where government invests, across the piece, that much more is spent on enforcement (police, prison, boarder control) than on treatment; and that almost nothing is spent on prevention.

  • Brett

    Two points: funding data on alcohol treatment need to consider that AA is completely unsupported by government.

    Second, liver dieases are worsened considerably by being obese, and there is a strong synergistic effect between obesity and heavy drinking. So when considering alcohol-related liver disease stats, we need to take our obesity rates into consideration.

  • Ehtch

    Don’t do top shelf, but like the pumps, as many in UK. Supermarket wines I did dabble in sadly in past, but no more, that became popular with the ladies, with the aisled marketing, sadly.

    The top shelf in some do take over control, that is when it does go overboard, when you like that too much, vodka bottles everywhere empty, since it doesn’t make your breath pong like a brewery, but eventually it starts sweating out of your skin pores, with that certain alcohol COOH smell. Then you get noticed, even though you claim you are still “functional”.

    Funny stuff alcohol, embedded in UK life, as part of our civilised body chemistry.

  • Simon Malloni

    I work with offenders and it has been noticeable how, over the last decade, alcoholism has become the predominant common factor in their backgrounds, allied with mental health. There are still lots of heroin / speed / cocaine misusers out there but they are using up proportionately less time of criminal justice and social care agencies.
    Simon Malloni, Cornwall

  • KrisInAustinTX

    The Brits have a “war on drugs” too? Come on, I thought you were smarter than that.