Healthcare News & Insights

The truth hurts: Booze, cigs worse than many illegal drugs


A health policy adviser was fired for saying out loud what many medical professionals already think: Alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than many illegal drugs.

Dr. David Nutt, a respected scientist, was the chair of the U.K.’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. This fall, he questioned the nation’s policies for determining which drugs should be restricted. In the course of his speech, he cited the “Mean Harm Scores for 20 Substances,” a well-regarded study which ranked drugs on their addictiveness, harmfulness to the user’s physical health, and threat to society.

The study, which came out about two years ago, unsurprisingly ranks heroin as the top threat, followed closely by cocaine, barbiturates and street methadone. Alcohol holds the fifth place on the list, above tobacco (ranked 9th), and several illegal drugs, including marijuana (11th), LSD (14th) and ecstasy (18th).

Nutt urged policy-makers to give more weight to such science-based rankings when assessing drug laws and regulations.

He was dismissed from his post on the Council the next day.

Science vs. culture?

The sticky truth is that culturally, booze and tobacco are more acceptable than other drugs, despite the fact that other substances, like LSD and pot may be less physically damaging. And politicians or other public figures who are eager to not appear “soft on drugs” may not be interested in hearing scientific research that flies in the face of current social norms.

No reasonable person wants to ban beer based on the study, or to legalize any drug that’s less addictive than cocaine. But to formulate good health policies, researchers have to be able to honestly discuss the results of their research — no matter what the results may be.

How can health practitioners and advisers give good advice if they fear getting flak — or even getting fired — just for mentioning good science that happens to be inconvenient? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Dr. David Nutt needs to be put back on the Advisory Council. I want to hear the truth and I want those I love to know the truth. What a dumb move taking him off.

  2. Venus Marchan says:

    That is a real shame what has happened to Dr. Nutt. You are absolutely right that these facts must be shared and should hold as much value as with any other sound scientific studies, much of our society depends on these studies. I have witnessed horrible life and relationship damage from booze, death from cigerattes (our state banned them in public places for a good reason).

  3. Allen Arthur says:

    I am surprised this happened in the UK. It sounds like common behavior (the firing) in the United States, with our Congress and many Administrative appointees heavily obligated to the tobacco and big alcohol lobbies. As Orwell told us, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Good luck, Dr Nutt.

  4. Karen Grinmanis, MS/Ed, RN says:

    This is a real shame. Health care practices and changes in practice to the benefit of the people we provide care to are dependant on evidence based on validated research studies. Sometimes those study results are not within the “acceptable” social norms. If we cannot speak out as health care providers to educate the public about the risk to personal health and well-being based on valid research results because of societal choice to be ignorant, then we may as well revert to the health care practices of the past as if we’ve learned nothing at all. This really doesn’t make much sense.

  5. Rev. William Shirk,M.Div., BCC says:

    According to the newly released FBI Uniform Crime Report, in 2008, there were 1,702,537 arrests in the United States for drug offenses– more than for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault combined. There are currently about 700,000 Americans behind bars in federal, state, and local jails in the United States for drug offenses, and the number increases each year. Most of these are for non-violent offenses, primarily possession and use of marijuana.
    After spending hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives in the Drug War, drugs on the street today are more widely available than at any time in history. At the same time, our courts and prisons are clogged, drug gangs rule our inner cities (as well as large areas of Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia), non-violent young offenders have their lives ruined by imprisonment, and ordinary citizens, as usual, pay the enormous tab. We are currently laying out about $50 billion a year to fight the Drug War, and according to the DEA’s own estimation, only about 10% of the illegal drugs coming into the US are intercepted.
    It would seem the present Drug War strategies of interdiction and incarceration are both expensive and ineffective, and considering the fact that in a typical year, in the United States less than 5,000 people die from the toxilogical effects of illegal drugs it becomes increasingly clear that the “cure” has become worse than the “disease”.
    One must wonder if the best way to treat drug abuse is with the iron-fisted and often inept hand of the criminal justice system. Or is it time to end the War on Drugs, and to deal with drug use the same way we deal with other public health issues, through compassion, voluntary treatment and education?
    What would happen if drugs were legalized? There might well be benefits, such as:
    1. Safer Streets: legitimate private enterprise would absorb the drug market, and suddenly drug gangs would find themselves out of business, and with no money for weapons and no sales turf to protect, the killing and urban terror would stop.
    2. Less Crime: drug prices would no longer be kept artificially inflated by criminals, but would be subject to normal market forces, and would go down dramatically and the crime rate with it. Cheaper drugs would result in less theft and prostitution by addicts, and less corruption of government and law enforcement, both at home and abroad.
    3. Less Burdened Legal System: our prisons and courts could be emptied of the huge numbers of persons snared by drug enforcement for simple possession and use, freeing up space and corrections resources for more dangerous felons.
    4. More Available Treatment: freed of the stigma of criminality, addicts would be more willing to come out of the closet for treatment, and the billions now poured into the bottomless pit of drug prohibition could be used for drug education and voluntary treatment programs, or returned to citizens in the form of lower taxes.
    5. Fewer Drug Deaths: the purity and strength of drugs legally produced would be a known quantity, eliminating accidental overdoses. There would be less needle sharing resulting in a drop in the occurrence of AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases spread by needle contamination.
    6. Less Addiction: the legalization of marijuana alone would likely cause a decrease in the use of addictive “hard” drugs and alcohol, just as the reappearance of legal beer, which had all but disappeared during alcohol prohibition, caused a drop in the per capita consumption of hard liquor after repeal of the 18th Amendment.
    7. Recapture of Freedom and Responsibility: it is not the purpose of government to enforce the health of its citizens. Repeal of drug prohibition would return the freedoms lost to it and reinstate personal responsibility in health matters.
    It seems clear that the “drug problem” is here to stay. The question for us as a society is how best to deal with it. I do not use illegal drugs, nor do I advocate their use. I simply believe, as do a growing number of Americans, that the ongoing Drug War is futile, expensive and unnecessary. It creates more problems than it solves, damages more lives than it saves, costs more than it is worth, and should be abandoned in favor of less harsh, and more helpful policy.

  6. Rev. Shirk, I agree with your comments. Thank you, your comment is well stated and obviously thought out. I have felt this way for years! In my younger days, I did use many different drugs. If legalized, many young people would never touch them; it would no longer show how “cool” they are for using, as it is not a way to “rebel”. Just a thought.

  7. I shutter at the thought of the United States Government being in control of the drugs that are now illegal. And at the thought of the United States Government controling the money taxed on the drugs. They would have a hay-day and would be more criminal than the worst drug cortel in the world!


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