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

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition