Problem drugs - We must deal with dangers of alcohol

The findings of Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs – published in the influential medical journal, The Lancet – suggesting alcohol is more dangerous than highly addictive drugs like heroin or crack cocaine needs to be scrutinised very carefully.

Nobody should make the mistake of thinking that the dangers of heroin or crack cocaine have been exaggerated. Rather, the problem has been that the dangers of alcohol have been greatly minimised by glamorous advertising over the years.

Alcohol is more readily available than most other drugs and hence undoubtedly causes more problems for the families of abusers. The World Health Organisation estimates that 2.5 million deaths a year are attributable to the abuse of alcohol – due to heart and liver disease, as well suicides, cancer, and road accidents caused by people driving under the influence of the drug.

All too often, people do not realise that alcohol is a dangerous drug, and innocent road users are often the victims because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the third leading risk factor leading to premature death and disabilities worldwide.

The British report suggests that the emphasis on the dangers of alcohol “is a valid and necessary public health strategy”. People need to recognise that alcohol is a lethal drug. In an effort to guide policy makers, the study adopted a multi-criteria approach analysing the harm of various drugs to users, their loved ones, and society in general.

Using this approach the scientists found that alcohol was more harmful than heroin, or crack cocaine, and more than three times more harmful than cannabis. Many people use alcohol regularly without any problems, but nobody uses heroine or crack regularly without serious problems.

The whole debate about drugs in Ireland has been muddied, because people have been approaching it from different perspectives on health, moral, emotive, and economic fronts, rather than recognising the relative dangers of the specific drugs.

The Drinks Industry Group of Ireland has highlighted the economic importance of the alcohol industry. It provides €2 billion annually to the national exchequer in VAT and excise duty, and generates a further €1bn in exports. It also helps to provide some 78,000 jobs throughout the country.

The group has been calling on the Government to cut the taxes on alcohol by a fifth in order to combat a decline of 14% in alcohol sales this year. This is threatening jobs in hotels, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs.

Drugs are a multi-billion euro business. The illicit trade is being left in the hands of thugs and murderers, who have been responsible for the growth of organised crime here in the same way it flourished in the US during the prohibition on alcohol in the 1920s and ’30s.

Society needs to recognise the specific dangers of the different drugs and deal with the issues in a determined and rational way.

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