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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 2nd August 2011

BBC TV’s current affairs programme, ‘Panorama’, tonight reported on the extent of alcohol related illness in the under 50s. It quoted a variety of statistics about alcohol use such as liver disease being the fifth biggest killer in the UK and that liver disease in under 30s has increased 50% in just ten years.

What struck me was that when statistics were quoted a small graphic at the bottom of the screen gave the source. I don’t know if I’m just sensitised to it because of all the recent talk about the trustworthiness of the media but it seemed to me a good move to reassure people that the programme wasn’t pulling numbers out of the air for dramatic effect.

It’s leaping ahead but the conclusion of the programme was that it seems possible that the government is too close to the alcohol industry for real action to be taken to change our habits.

As with all such TV, the programme picked a few stories to tell about the effects of drink and with over one million hospital attendances each year for alcohol related problems there must have been plenty to choose from. Easily the most-heartrending story was of the mother who is forced to watch her 35-year old daughter destroy herself because her heavy-drinking as a teen did not moderate itself into adulthood and she faces total liver failure.

It is six years, now, since I drank any alcohol. I was never a ‘problem’ drinker but I realised that I could not speak about the harms plant-derived substances can do while continuing to use one of the most common myself. I hope I haven’t become an evangelical non-drinker but I do believe that every drinker has to have a change of attitude in order to benefit the heaviest drinkers.

I don’t think there is anything funny about drunkenness and I believe that it should be as repugnant to depict drunkenness in comedy as it is, these days, to depict racism. There should also be a break between the idea of celebration and drink. Personally, I’d like the government to go so far as to stop serving alcohol during government hospitality events but that may be rather too radical at the moment.

Panorama showed some footage of a typical A & E unit on a busy night when nearly every case had some connection with alcohol. It reminded me of one of the first talks I gave outside the Poison Garden. It was to a group of anaesthetists and, talking before the start, one of them was saying he’d just come from a day shift in A & E. He’d been asked to assist in twelve cases, that day. Eleven were alcohol related and the twelfth was a drug mule whose packets of heroin had burst in her stomach.

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

Artemisia absinthium, wormwood

The scientific world is clearly getting to grips with the reality of the harm that alcohol can do. In the latest edition of ‘Addiction’ journal, for example, there is more coverage of alcohol than cocaine and heroin combined. The rest of the world needs to catch up and stop blaming other things for the harm alcohol does. I am sure that the harm attributed to absinthe comes not from the extracts of Artemisia absinthium, wormwood, but from its high alcohol content.

I said that it is time to take the comedy out of alcohol. In 1973, Michael Green in ‘The Art of Coarse Drinking’ defined a drinker as someone who wakes up the morning after downing a dozen gins and tonic feeling dreadful and concludes there must have been something wrong with the tonic. It was funny then but now, I believe, it is a serious indication of the problems we face in dealing with our dependence on alcohol. We have to stop thinking that alcohol is all right and the only trouble comes when people ‘overdo it a bit’.