Alcohol can do good as well as damage

From a speech by Bruce Charlton, the lecturer in psychology at Newcastle University, made during a debate at Kings College, London

Share

From the public health perspective, alcohol is pretty much a bad thing. Alcohol has, of course, great potential for harm. The dangers of alcohol have been extensively documented in the statistics of road accidents, violence, suicide and disease.

From the public health perspective, alcohol is pretty much a bad thing. Alcohol has, of course, great potential for harm. The dangers of alcohol have been extensively documented in the statistics of road accidents, violence, suicide and disease.

The good effects and opportunities that result from increased happiness, creativity, sociability, and human fulfilment in general are simply not a part of the public health calculus, since these aspects are private, subjective and incalculable.

Alcohol is probably the most powerful of widely available psychotropic drugs. More accurately, it can be regarded as several drugs, since its effects vary between people and according to dose. In high doses, alcohol produces intoxication, stupor, coma and eventually death. In lower doses, its effects may be benign and life-enhancing. Alcohol is not just a drug, since it is a flavouring element in some of the most enjoyable foods and drinks: beer, cider, wine, whisky and so on. And people often drink alcohol not for its medicinal properties but to become intoxicated as a positive objective in its own right - intoxication being a delirious state of brain impairment. At best, intoxication may provide a kind of happy holiday from the real world - albeit short-lived, and followed by that holiday in hell we call a hangover.

But aside from its effects in flavouring and as a pleasurable intoxicant, there are at least three serious reasons for taking alcohol as a psychoactive drug. Alcohol may be used as a hypnotic agent, in other words to promote sleep. Second, some people take alcohol as a kind of "antidepressant" or psychological pain-killer. The third use is as an anti-anxiety agent - to reduce shyness, increase confidence and lubricate social intercourse.

From a narrow public health perspective, these benefits of alcohol are almost invisible. Whether someone is shy, has a good night's sleep, or is miserable, are matters of supreme indifference to the government, except insofar as a population of shy, insomniac miseries is easier to control.

Unfortunately, alcohol is not a very good antidepressant. To achieve the effect of dulling the mind to pain, alcohol must be taken in large enough doses to produce a significant degree of intoxication. Substantial impairment of mental function is inevitable, and physical damage and addiction are probable in the long term. This is how alcohol is traditionally used, or abused, in high-latitude northern European societies such as Finland, Scotland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne - people drink to forget, and to escape.

In contrast to the berserker intoxication of a macho Viking or Geordie, Spanish men would regard slurring their words or uncontrolled behaviour as shameful, unmasculine behaviour leading to loss of reputation. So, in Spain most people drink, most of the time, yet very few get drunk.

Small frequent doses of alcohol are an effective treatment for some types of shyness. And - because humans evolved in small, stable, tribal societies - debilitating shyness and social phobia are common in our mass industrial society populated by a mass of strangers. Hence the use of alcohol as a social lubricant is, by and large, life enhancing.

The most straightforward alternative to alcohol as a social lubricant are drugs such as diazepam, or Valium. These share many of the disadvantages of alcohol in terms of being potentially addictive and prone to abuse, but they have the advantages of being longer-acting and safer than alcohol, both in acute intoxicating doses, and in the long term.

But a more promising alternative to alcohol as a social lubricant would be the newer drugs marketed under the "antidepressant" label, drugs such as Prozac. In general, a person who is shy and wants to try taking something like Prozac should be able to do so. Personal freedom, not public health policy, should decide on the risks we wish to take.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits