Review: 'Demons: our changing attitudes to alcohol, tobacco and drugs', By Virginia Berridge (Oxford University Press, £16.99)

 

A table published in the Lancet in 2007 ranked substances for harmfulness, and it made headlines when it placed alcohol ahead of crack cocaine and ketamine (“Special K”, to those who enjoy administering a horse tranquiliser on themselves). Tobacco was judged to be worse than cannabis, glue and solvents, LSD and ecstasy. Bar-room philosophers all over the land almost spilled their pints at the notion that they were hard-drug users.

It was, perhaps, meant to be provocative in that unworldly way scientists sometimes like to affect. They did not stray all that far away from public opinion, however: the most harmful drug by some margin was said to be heroin, followed by cocaine, and the least bad, amyl nitrate and khat, then just emerging as a feature among the Somali community. Had the table been produced a couple of centuries before, heroin’s opiate predecessors would not even have been eligible for inclusion: alcohol, specifically gin, would have topped the charts.

Virginia Berridge’s book is an entertaining – I hesitate to use the term addictive – account of our changing attitudes towards, and use of, all manner of substances, with a focus on the most durable pair, tobacco and alcohol. Her account reminds us of how what is now illicit used to be commonplace. Thus, William Wilberforce is revealed as an opium addict, one of many at the time who apparently functioned well into old age. He had a lot to choose from. As with the myriad legal highs today, numerous opium preparations were available, from pills, lozenges, tincture (the romantically named laudanum) through to – goodness me – opium enemas. 

The question that is always asked, of course, is why alcohol and tobacco survived, albeit heavily taxed and regulated, while other drugs became demonised. Much of it seems to be fashion and culture. Snuff and pipe-smoking have long been out of fashion, while tobacco is ghettoised. “Rave” drugs and “legal highs” emerged to replace the treats of the hippie generation. Opium became associated with “low life” by about 1900, and infected with fear of “otherness” due to its popularity among Chinese seafarers in the east end of London.

The most rational drug choice today, as per Lancet’s list, would probably be khat: organic, relatively harmless, with no links to organised crime or street violence. But how many of us want to sit around chewing leaves? Then again, not so long ago it was quite usual to see ashtrays in offices and smokers in restaurants. Maybe in 20 years they’ll passing round the khat at fashionable dinner parties or raves.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea