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Should alcohol be treated like other drugs?

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) has urged the government to start taking alcohol use as seriously as it does the use of illegal substances.

The notion has been supported by the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) who have warned that we need to challenge our current understanding of psychoactive drugs in order to reflect the reality that alcohol is more harmful to society than Class A drugs are.

The use of all Class A drugs combined currently costs society £15.4 billion per year. Alcohol consumption comes at a cost of £21 billion a year and experts feel that the UK’s policy priorities should be adjusted to reflect this.

Why alcohol abuse needs to be taken more seriously

There’s a common misconception that illegal drugs are more dangerous than alcohol and this is fuelled by how people assume that if something is legal, it can’t be that bad. However, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol is more harmful than illegal substances.

  • There are 38 million drinkers in the UK which is almost three times the number of people who use tobacco, prescription drugs and illegal drugs combined
  • As the most widely available of all drugs, alcohol causes far greater harm to health and wellbeing than many of its illegal counterparts
    Alcohol comes only second to tobacco in causing the most deaths in the UK
  • The number of people who are dying from alcohol-related causes is significantly greater than it was 20 years ago. There has been a 19% increase in alcohol-related deaths since 2001
  • Although heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamines cause the greatest harm to users, alcohol inflicts the biggest amount of harm to others by a wide margin. More than half of all violent crime in 2015 was alcohol-related, one in six road traffic deaths involve alcohol consumption and the number of diagnosed cases of foetal alcohol syndrome has tripled in England over the past 16 years
  • 3.3 million deaths occur around the world every year as a direct result of alcohol. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) that’s 5.9% of all annual deaths and equates to one death every 10 seconds

Last year, IFL Science looked into the results of two separate studies in order to determine whether or not alcohol really is more harmful than illegal substances. In both studies, sixteen different parameters of harm were chosen and then divided in terms of the effect on the user as well as on others and society as a whole.

Twenty different drugs were analysed including LSD, ecstasy, methadone, ketamine, tobacco, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and alcohol. The list of factors that were considered included the likelihood of dying, dependence, impairment of mental functions, loss of things such as your house or job, physical injury, criminal activities and economic cost.

It may come as a surprise to many but alcohol came out top of the list, even above heroin and crack cocaine. This was primarily because of the harm it causes to other people and the wider economy.

Why is alcohol so harmful?

Being naïve about the long-term effects of too much alcohol can take a serious toll on our health.

Brain – alcohol can affect the way the brain looks and works because it interferes with its communication pathways. These disruptions can also lead to a change in mood and behaviour as well as make it harder to think clearly and coordinate our movements.

Heart – drinking too much over a long period of time or regularly bingeing on alcohol can damage the heart in a number of ways including:

  • Stretching and drooping the heart muscle
  • Causing an irregular heart beat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure

Liver –heavy drinking can take its toll on the liver. It can lead to a number of problems including:

  • Fatty liver
  • Alcohol hepatitis
  • Fibrosis
  • Cirrhosis

Pancreas – alcohol can cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances. This can eventually lead to pancreatitis which is a condition that prevents proper digestion.

Cancer – in recent years, research has indicated that alcohol can greatly increase our chances of developing certain cancers including mouth, oesophagus, throat, liver and breast cancer.

Immune system – drinking too much can even weaken our immune system and make us more susceptible to diseases. Chronic drinkers are more likely to contract diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis and too much alcohol even on a single occasion can affect the body’s ability to fight off infections for up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

If you think that you or someone you know could have a problem with alcohol, please visit our Alcohol Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation page for more information about the signs, symptoms and treatments available. Alternatively, feel free to contact us in the strictest of confidence if you would like to speak to a member of the Life Works team.

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