more harmful than heroin or crack, according to a study published in medical journal the Lancet.
Alcohol more lethal than heroin, cocaine By MARIA CHENG
The Associated Press. Sunday, October 31, 2010; 8:08 PM
LONDON — Alcohol is more dangerous than illegal drugs like heroin and crack cocaine, according to a new study.
British experts evaluated substances including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana, ranking them based on how destructive they are to the individual who takes them and to society as a whole.
Researchers analyzed how addictive a drug is and how it harms the human body, in addition to other criteria like environmental damage caused by the drug, its role in breaking up families and its economic costs, such as health care, social services, and prison.
Heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine, or crystal meth, were the most lethal to individuals. When considering their wider social effects, alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were the deadliest. But overall, alcohol outranked all other substances, followed by heroin and crack cocaine. Marijuana, ecstasy and LSD scored far lower.
The study was paid for by Britain’s Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and was published online Monday in the medical journal, Lancet.
Experts said alcohol scored so high because it is so widely used and has devastating consequences not only for drinkers but for those around them.
“Just think about what happens (with alcohol) at every football game,” said Wim van den Brink, a professor of psychiatry and addiction at the University of Amsterdam. He was not linked to the study and co-authored a commentary in the Lancet.
When drunk in excess, alcohol damages nearly all organ systems. It is also connected to higher death rates and is involved in a greater percentage of crime than most other drugs, including heroin.
But experts said it would be impractical and incorrect to outlaw alcohol.
“We cannot return to the days of prohibition,” said Leslie King, an adviser to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and one of the study’s authors. “Alcohol is too embedded in our culture and it won’t go away.”
King said countries should target problem drinkers, not the vast majority of people who indulge in a drink or two. He said governments should consider more education programs and raising the price of alcohol so it isn’t as widely available.
Experts said the study should prompt countries to reconsider how they classify drugs. For example, last year in Britain, the government increased its penalties for the possession of marijuana. One of its senior advisers, David Nutt – the lead author on the Lancet study – was fired after he criticized the British decision.
“What governments decide is illegal is not always based on science,” said van den Brink. He said considerations about revenue and taxation, like those garnered from the alcohol and tobacco industries, may influence decisions about which substances to regulate or outlaw.
“Drugs that are legal cause at least as much damage, if not more, than drugs that are illicit,” he said.
A new study in the British medical journal Lancet has determined alcohol is a more dangerous drug than both crack and heroin when the combined harms to the user and to others are assessed.
The scientists rated alcohol the most harmful overall and almost three times as harmful as cocaine or tobacco.
The World Health Organization estimates that risks linked to alcohol cause 2.5 million deaths a year from heart and liver disease, road accidents, suicides and cancer.
The scientists assessed damage according to nine criteria on harm to the user and seven criteria on harm to others.
Drugs were then scored out of 100, with 100 given to the most harmful drug and zero indicating no harm at all.
The scientists found alcohol was most harmful, with a score of 72, followed by heroin with 55 and crack with 54. Marijuana was given a score of 20.
Alcohol ‘more harmful than heroin’ says Prof David Nutt.
The report is co-authored by Professor David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs adviser who was sacked by the government in October 2009.
It ranks 20 drugs on 16 measures of harm to users and to wider society.
Gavin Partington, of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said alcohol abuse affected “a minority” who needed “education, treatment and enforcement”.
The study also said tobacco and cocaine are judged to be equally harmful, while ecstasy and LSD are among the least damaging.
Prof Nutt refused to leave the drugs debate when he was sacked from his official post by the former Labour Home Secretary, Alan Johnson.
He went on to form the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, a body which aims to investigate the drug issue without any political interference.
One of its other members is Dr Les King, another former government adviser who quit over Prof Nutt’s treatment.
Members of the group, joined by two other experts, scored each drug for harms including mental and physical damage, addiction, crime and costs to the economy and communities.
The BBC’s home editor, Mark Easton, writes in his blog that the study involved 16 criteria, including a drug’s affects on users’ physical and mental health, social harms including crime, “family adversities” and environmental damage, economic costs and “international damage”.
The modelling exercise concluded that heroin, crack and methylamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, were the most harmful drugs to individuals, but alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were the most harmful to society.
When the scores for both types of harm were added together, alcohol emerged as the most harmful drug, followed by heroin and crack.
‘Valid and necessary’
The findings run contrary to the government’s long-established drug classification system, but the paper’s authors argue that their system – based on the consensus of experts – provides an accurate assessment of harm for policy makers.
“Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm,” the paper says.
“They also accord with the conclusions of previous expert reports that aggressively targeting alcohol harms is a valid and necessary public health strategy.”
In 2007, Prof Nutt and colleagues undertook a limited attempt to create a harm ranking system, sparking controversy over the criteria and the findings.
The new more complex system ranked alcohol three times more harmful than cocaine or tobacco. Ecstasy was ranked as causing one-eighth the harm of alcohol.
It also contradicted the Home Office’s decision to make so-called legal high mephedrone a Class B drug, saying that alcohol was five times more harmful. The rankings have been published to coincide with a conference on drugs policy, organised by Prof Nutt’s committee.
Prof Nutt told the BBC: “Overall, alcohol is the most harmful drug because it’s so widely used.
“Crack cocaine is more addictive than alcohol but because alcohol is so widely used there are hundreds of thousands of people who crave alcohol every day, and those people will go to extraordinary lengths to get it.”
He said it was important to separate harm to individuals and harm to society.
The Lancet paper written by Prof Nutt, Dr King and Dr Lawrence Phillips, does not examine the harm caused to users by taking more than one drug at a time.
Mr Partington, who is the spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, said millions of people enjoyed alcohol “as part of a regular and enjoyable social drink”.
“Clearly alcohol misuse is a problem in the country and our real fear is that, by talking in such extreme terms, Professor Nutt and his colleagues risk switching people off from considering the real issues and the real action that is needed to tackle alcohol misuse,” he said.
“We are talking about a minority. We need to focus policy around that minority, which is to do with education, treatment and enforcement.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Our priorities are clear – we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.”