Home   Contact Phil 


Phil Mellows is a freelance
 journalist living in Brighton 

Hear about the latest on this site at Twitter ...
Phil on
Posterous ...    Phil's blog on the CPL Training website ...

        The politics of drinking

November 13, 2013



Why bringing on a sub won't change the drinking game

Professor David Nutt knows an opportunity when he sees one. Ever since he won the John Maddox Prize last week for 'standing up for science' he's been plugging his patent alcohol substitute again, trying to get funding to go into commercial production.

Nutt first mentioned his invention more than four years ago as he began to expound his controversial views about alcohol being more dangerous than heroin. Obviously, he's struggling to find takers, though Evan Davis, coincidentally the presenter of business angels TV show Dragon's Den, was audibly gawping in wonderment during his chat with Nutt on Radio 4's Today programme.

The interview was little more than a free advert, and the Daily Telegraph was duly indignant that the hated BBC was allowing someone to sell an addictive drug on air. It's not the sort of thing you want to be hearing over the breakfast sideboard.

I'm disproportionately amused that among the outraged is libertarian Claire Fox, billed as director of the Institute of Ideas, an organisation with, shall we say, close links with Sense About Science, which, with the magazine Nature, awarded the John Maddox Prize to Nutt. Perhaps he stood up for the wrong science.

Anyway, best not go there.

What's most interesting is that Nutt's alcohol substitute project has been reinvigorated by the electronic cigarette phenomenon. A huge battle is being fought here over the future of something that, on the face of it, could save many lives by offering a relatively safe way of delivering nicotine. The key objection is that it sustains people's dependence on nicotine, rather than getting them off it.

There's a similar row about methadone being used as an opiod substitute for heroin. At bottom, it's the difference between the harm reduction and the abstentionist approaches to drugs. It raises quite fundamental questions about our attitude to problematic and unproblematic addictions.

But is Nutt right to put his alcohol substitute in the same category as e-cigs? Given that they're both psychoactive substances, let's start with the difference between drink and tobacco. As Alcohol Research UK's James Nicholls pointed out  to me, with a drink it's the alcohol that's the dangerous bit, the other ingredients are relatively benign. While with a smoke, that's reversed. The nicotine is relatively safe, it's the tar in the baccy that does for you

Nutt's alcohol substitute is, in a sense, chucking the baby out with the bathwater and then refilling the bath. That's not going to convince us we've still got the baby. He says we can make all kinds of lovely cocktails with it, but I, for one, bloody hate cocktails. (Well, I wouldn't turn down a wet martini if I could find one.)

I have argued that alcohol is a drug of a special kind, on account of the sheer diversity of drinks it comes in and the consequent potential for, not necesssarily explicit, connoissership.

People don't just drink to get drunk, although that can be part of the fun. And as the market has proven time and again, alcohol-free beers and wines have only a limited appeal, because alcohol is essential to delivering the complexity and depth of a drink, it's instrinsic to the nature of good beer, wine and whisky.

We can't rule out the possibility that an alcohol substitute might have a role in the treatment of individuals with a drink problem, and in that context perhaps it's the NHS should be seriously looking into it rather than leaving it to the whims of capital funding. But Nutt's ambitions appear to be on a societal scale, and in that he is surely mistake.

Back to diary archive




Writing... Journalism... Research... Awards Judging... Pub Business Advice... Pub Crawls
Contact Phil