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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

November 03, 2010



The Nutt report: exaggeration, not evidence

I’m not sure that any more needs to to said about the shock revelation by Prof David Nutt and his team at the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs that alcohol is more harmful than heroin etc etc. Certainly I agree with everything Pete Brown says in his cutting analysis (especially the bit where he calls me “excellent”). But I suppose that if god had meant us not to carry on unnecessarily about a particular subject he wouldn’t have given us blogs.

Incidentally, David Nutt has a blog. It’s called “Evidence not Exaggeration”. That’s a laugh. Since Monday the headlines and radio waves have greedily seized on the idea that alcohol is the most harmful drug despite the obvious qualifications that it’s harm to society, not the drinker, that hurls it to the top of the table, and that’s only because alcohol is so widely consumed.

The media has not so much exaggerated the findings as completely distorted them. Yet Nutt has done little to put the record straight. In fact he’s probably perfectly happy with the coverage. Publicity is his own drug of choice.

A Twitter friend of mine wondered what’s so compelling about alcohol being worse than heroin. There are two explanations. First, it’s a short, easy-to-grasp soundbite. Second, it’s completely counter-intuitive.

There’s an old saying in journalism about what defines news. When a dog bites a man, that’s not news. When a man bites a dog, that’s news. Saying that alcohol is more dangerous than heroin is pure man bites dog, irresistible to any journalist.

And Nutt knows it. He’s a canny, if crude, player of the media.

And on the evidence side? Nutt and his colleagues who now form the ISCD were sacked or resigned from the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on a sound, if utopian, point of principle – keeping politics out of science. Yet there’s precious little scientific evidence in the new study. Amazingly, all this fuss is based on a one-day workshop in which Nutt and some friends sat round a table and scored the harmfulness of different drugs from 0 to 100 against 16 criteria the ACMD had already come up with. It was entirely subjective. The only novelty was the complex ranking method, borrowed, apparently, from nuclear waste disposal policy-making.

The irony is that in trying to get some sort of rational approach to drugs policy, free of politicking, Nutt is himself playing politics, fast and loose. And here I am encouraging him with more publicity. I’ll shut up.

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