An alcohol substitute without the hangover? We'd miss one of life’s most exquisite painful pleasures

Some drink to remember, some drink to forget and some drink because Tesco had a special offer on Rioja this week


I recommend a refreshing can of Lilt. Some swear by a full English fry-up or a teaspoon of milk thistle. Medical students with access to the necessary equipment have been known to make use of a saline-solution drip. These are only a few of the homespun remedies for the morning after, but ultimately all such efforts are in vain, because as the American humourist Robert Benchley said: “The only cure for a real hangover is death.” Until now, that is.

David Nutt, everyone’s second-favourite scientist (Professor Brian Cox still pips him), was on Radio 4’s Today programme discussing his latest gift to humanity – a synthetic alcohol substitute. This substance, he said, produces many of the enjoyable effects of alcohol – lowered inhibitions, improved mood and relaxation, but with none of the miserable side-effects. No damage to the liver and heart; no memory loss; no hangover the next morning. Also, since it works by directly targeting neurotransmitters in the brain, the effects can be quickly reversed with an antidote in the form of dissolvable film placed under your tongue. It is the invention Booze Britain has been waiting for – and just in time for Christmas.

Alas, we may still have a long while to wait before this wonder drug reaches the market, if indeed it ever does. The reason for Nutt’s appearance on Today wasn’t in order for him and Evan Davis to toast his genius over a fine oak barrel-aged strip of dissolvable film, it was to make an appeal for investment. Research into alcohol substitutes has been going on since around 2004, and Nutt has been talking up his own research since at least 2009, but apparently hangover-free booze isn’t as eagerly anticipated everywhere as it is in this newspaper office.

While e-cigarettes are now manufactured and promoted by the same tobacco companies that make traditional cigarettes, the alcohol industry has so far shown little interest in buying into hangover-free booze. Nutt declared himself mystified: “I find it weird that we haven’t been speaking about this before, because it’s such an obvious target for health improvement.”

He’s right, of course. At a conservative estimate, around 9,000 people every year die from alcohol-related causes in the UK. In 2009, when he was the Government’s drugs tsar, Nutt famously ranked alcohol above LSD, ecstasy and cannabis in terms of the harm it causes – and was subsequently sacked from his post by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. Since then, the evidence supporting Nutt’s claims has only stacked up.

The availability of a harmless alcohol substitute at a reasonable price could save the NHS an estimated £3.7bn a year. So why is this nectar of the gods still languishing somewhere in an Imperial College laboratory when it should be coming out to party?

It’s not “health improvement” that motivates investors, it’s potential profit margins. Although some sweetly naive e-cigarette enthusiasts, or “vapers”, believe otherwise, tobacco companies like Lorillard didn’t buy into e-cigarettes for the good of their customers’ lungs; they did it to make money. Around 70 per cent of smokers say they would like to give up, representing a 70 per cent share of a lucrative market that tobacco companies stood to loose out on if they didn’t adapt their business model. The typical drinker’s relationship with alcohol, however, is more complicated.

Some drink to remember, some drink to forget and some drink because Tesco had a special offer on Rioja this week. Alcohol drinking is convenient in places where smoking is banned outright and not only more socially acceptable, but in many social situations, near obligatory. For this reason, the majority of drinkers, even problem drinkers, have absolutely no intention of giving up.

Alcohol also enjoys a privileged position legally: it’s the drug that somehow isn’t a drug. The result of this illogical hypocrisy is that any substitute substance that Prof Nutt and his team produced would likely be viewed by legislators as “a drug” and therefore be subject to much more legal restriction than a G&T or a pint of bitter. All of this might be surmountable if we truly despised our hangovers as much as we pretend to. Most drinkers can remember a time they woke up with a throbbing head and a mouth so dry they could shoot a Lawrence of Arabia sequel in it. You probably swore it was the last time? And was it?

In fact, a hangover provides us with something to boast about or moan about (depending on your frame of mind), a great excuse to laze around and, most compelling of all, it perfectly fits the moralistic world view which equates pleasure with sin; you did something fun and now you must be punished. It’s this same moralism which continues to inform drugs legislation, despite the oft-proved fact that neither a prison sentence nor a hangover is much use at reforming a reprobate.

Once again, Prof Nutt has shown us the pharmacological bounty that lies just within reach, and once again we’ve shown him how far we are from ever being able to actually enjoy it.

You can’t deny she’s got sole

Side-boob? Under-boob? Classic cleavage? Muffin top? Such is the dilemma facing attention-seeking, fashion-conscious women everywhere as party season approaches. Kudos to Julia Roberts, then, for coming up with a new and interesting flesh-flashing move, just as we feared the field was dead to innovation. When the star of Eat, Pray, Love took to the stage at the Bafta Britannia Awards in Los Angeles, her dress was fancy, her hair was perfectly styled – but her shoes were missing.

Far from looking desperate, the barefootin’ woman exuded self-confidence. It was as if every star in Hollywood was her closest pal and the whole world was her living room. Well-played, Ms Roberts, but mind you don’t stub your toe on a table leg. To really impress the room with your insouciant glamour, perhaps a pair of faux fur M&S slippers?

Tea, supper or dinner?

Have you tested yourself on the North-o-Meter yet? It’s a online quiz which uses questions like “When did you last eat chips and gravy?” I scored a perfect 50 per cent (Mum’s a cockney, Dad’s a geordie), so let me say that yes, London-centrism still plagues the media, and yes, regionalist prejudice is a tedious and frustrating reality, but if this rivalry was eradicated, Britain would be a far less interesting place.

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