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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
April 21, 2010



Politics, science, drugs and alcohol

In the midst of the commotion around mephedrone a few weeks ago, as well as recommending a ban on the formerly legal high, the much-troubled Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs also published a report that focused on alcohol.

What with one thing and another – the mephedrone controversy brought two more resignations from the ACMD following the exodus in response to the sacking of Prof David Nutt – the follow-up to the 2006 Pathways to Problems report wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media until the last few days.

It makes various recommendations including treating alcohol as a drug (something I would be in favour of if drugs policy wasn’t such a mess), standardising drinks measures into units, higher duty for stronger beers and a lower blood alcohol limit for drivers under 25.

Advocates of new temperance wondered why this wasn’t picked up by the media straight away. Stranger is the fact that the report was completed nine months before it got printed, when Nutt was still in place. In fact he’s signed the letter that stands as a preface.

The justified suspicion is that politics is getting in the way of science. The latest issue of medical journal The Lancet carries a leader criticising the rushing through of the mephedrone ban and adding that the Pathways to Problems follow-up had been “conveniently buried” under the mephedrone affair.

The accusation that the government is avoiding having to confront hard medical evidence and pandering to the drinks industry is a familiar one in the arena of alcohol policy. That science is being “contaminated” by politics is a serious charge. But the irony is that the medical temperance represented by the Lancet here is itself politically sophisticated.

Over some 40 years elements within the medical profession, sometimes in alliance with the rump of old temperance, has crafted a consensus that has grown increasingly influential over the past few years.

There is science in what they say, but it is a science already politicised by whatever is required to maintain that consensus and frame the arguments in such a way that they have political resonance.

The repeated calls for minimum pricing, whatever you think of that policy, is the most prominent example. Even the scientist who has supposedly ‘proved’ its efficacy in reducing alcohol harm has her doubts that it will work. But It's a handy slogan.

And then there’s the matter of whether we really want drug and alcohol policy to be determined by science alone. I had a tweet about the Lancet editorial from Julian Buchanan, a drugs expert and professor in criminal and social justice at the University of Glyndwr.

“A scientific view of drugs is a dangerous path,” he commented. “Drug use is social, cultural, political - propaganda is the problem.”

Same goes for drink, surely. You can’t base an alcohol policy purely on what a chemical does to a body. Science is a great thing, but it must take its place amongst a broader analysis.

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