Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Tenets of the New Puritans #4: Bad lifestyle is an illness - and the doctors can help you


Part of the New Puritan attack on our lifestyle choices depends on the characterisation of us – or those of us who choose to smoke, drink and eat fatty, salt-laden foods – as victims rather than as free individuals making personal choices.

Tobacco companies spend billions of dollars every year to get children and teens to use tobacco. They need 5,000 new smokers everyday, because some smokers quit or die. Today your child learned how advertising tries to get youth to smoke.


Disturbing new marketing methods are being deployed by food firms to ensure youngsters develop an appetite for products high in salt, sugar and fat.


Add to these other forms of advertising (magazine ads, billboards, Web sites and brand-related clothing and products), signage at sporting events, sponsorship of sports and TV & radio programs....... and most young people will have seen approximately 100,000 alcohol ads by the time they turn 18.

The message is clear, the companies that make cigarettes, brew and distil alcohol and sell hamburgers are enticing us into dangerous addictions. The sheer weight of advertising leaves us with no choice, we are drawn inexorably towards these products and the counter-weight of health promotion and protection does not work. We are victims, we are ill.

This means, of course, that there is an answer – not just the regulation and control of the companies serving us with bad habits but the development, indeed the medicalisation, of these sad addictions. This has been dubbed the Nutt Solution after the former government drugs advisor of that name.

Last week I attended a discussion group chaired by the Observer's health correspondent Denis Campbell where one of the other experts, a public health doctor, asserted that alcohol should be treated differently from tobacco (and by inference other drugs) because there is no safe dose of tobacco whereas alcohol is safe until a person's drinking gets to "unsafe" levels. Its health benefits for the cardiovascular system are also often used to support the claim that in low doses alcohol is safe, for how else could it be health-promoting?

The myth of a safe level of drinking is a powerful claim. It is one that many health professionals appear to believe in and that the alcohol industry uses to defend its strategy of making the drug readily available at low prices. However, the claim is wrong and the supporting evidence flawed.

Which on the face of it doesn’t fit well with his supposedly liberal views on drugs:

Nutt had criticised politicians for "distorting" and "devaluing" the research evidence in the debate over illicit drugs.

Arguing that some "top" scientific journals had published "horrific examples" of poor quality research on the alleged harm caused by some illicit drugs, the Imperial College professor called for a new way of classifying the harm caused by both legal and illegal drugs.

Until you realise that people like Professor Nutt want the medical profession to control the distribution of ‘drugs’ (and such people include alcohol and nicotine in this distribution). And Professor Nutt actively promotes misinformation about alcohol through education:

The teaching module shows the students how the drinks industry makes its own voluntary codes and them blatantly ignores them. It shows how the Portman Group [that has responsibility for alcohol education] whilst appearing to be concerned about alcohol harm is actually dominated by the drinks industry. Also it is revealed that the public health message in the UK is left to the drinks industry. The myths surrounding alcohol are discussed and then the students are asked to make up their own mind about the issues. Profit motives of the drinks industry, the tax income and political agendas are exposed and compared with the cost to society, mortality and shortening of life caused by alcohol use.

Professor Nutt is the most prominent figure – there are others such as former Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris – is a campaign to liberalise drugs laws and tighten laws on drinking so as to, in effect, medicalise the distribution. A process we see beginning to happen with smoking:

The parliament in Reykjavik is to debate a proposal that would outlaw the sale of cigarettes in normal shops. Only pharmacies would be allowed to dispense them – initially to those aged 20 and up, and eventually only to those with a valid medical certificate.

The important fact here is that, with drug distribution under the control of doctors, it opens up the market for pleasure drugs to the pharmaceuticals industry. Indeed, the market for nicotine replacement therapy worldwide already exceed £3bn – and we can expect this to increase substantially as the industry targets countries such as China, India and Indonesia.

It is but a short step from this position with smoking (and no doubt currently illegal drugs) to a similar position on alcohol – registered addicts only able to purchase alcohol with a doctor’s certificate. And a new market for “alcohol replacement therapies” produced and marketed by the big pharmaceuticals businesses.

In the food industry this process of medicalisation is already well advanced – witness all the adverts telling us of Omega 3, good bacteria and reduced cholesterol plus the enormous market for vitamin supplements. Again the medical profession has attacked these adverts – not because the products are unhealthy but because they amount to self-prescription. We can see the EU’s regulation of vitamin products as part of this process with doctors and the pharmaceuticals industry combining with government to destroy a successful industry that competes with them.

Some of the most popular vitamin and mineral pills are likely to be banned after a vote in the European Parliament this week.

Some of the most popular vitamin and mineral pills are likely to be banned after a vote in the European Parliament this week.

The vote, on Tuesday, is expected to put the finishing touches to a new EU law designed to crack down on the sale of the pills. Critics say that the law – which has already been approved by EC governments, including Britain, and the European Commission – will plunge countless people into distress, and put hundreds of health food shops out of business.

The law – which opponents believe is being pushed through at the behest of multinational drug companies wanting to stamp on competition from alternative products – is being promoted by the commission as a safety measure. But the commission itself admits that "scientific research has recently established real or potential benefits to health" that could result from some of them.

We see in this how the message of “safety” combines with the interests of powerful lobbies (the medical profession and pharmaceuticals) and the desire of New Puritans to ensure pleasure is purposeful.  And at the core of this is the view – put forward by Professor Nutt, that some people are addicts, trapped into dependence from their first drag or their first sip:

Although most people do not become addicted to alcohol on their first drink, a small proportion do. As a clinical psychiatrist who has worked with alcoholics for more than 30 years, I have seen many people who have experienced a strong liking of alcohol from their very first exposure and then gone on to become addicted to it. We cannot at present predict who these people will be, so any exposure to alcohol runs the risk of producing addiction in some users.

Note that the good professor wraps his bias up in science – there is no evidence to support his contention – and plays the “I’m a doctor” card to provide support for his mission against alcohol. These potential addicts – who could be anyone – require protection and, since we don’t know who they are everyone is at risk. Ergo everyone should be protected – alcohol, like cigarettes, must be controlled.

By the doctors of course!



Anonymous said...

Please note that professor Nutt has a patent for an alcohol replacement drink which is based on Valium.

Anonymous said...

Nil by mouth 2004

"The Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD), now working its way through the EU machine, promises to provide for a 'simplified pharmaceutical registration' for 'herbal medicines' - but only for substances that have been in safe use for 30 years, 15 of them within the EU, singly or in the same combinations. Thus, medicinal herbs in centuries-long use outside the community cannot benefit from the fast-track licence procedure.

The THMPD is a part of the existing Pharmaceuticals Directive, currently being amended to widen the scope of drug classification. According to the amendment, anything that 'restores, corrects or modifies physiological function' in the body will be deemed a drug. The directive will have power to take precedence over both the FSD and THMPD, even though they may all be applicable to the same natural food supplement.

Public safety is cited as the motivating force behind these directives."

Europe to ban hundreds of herbal remedies

"From 1 May 2011, traditional herbal medicinal products must be licensed or prescribed by a registered herbal practitioner to comply with an EU directive passed in 2004. The directive was introduced in response to rising concern over adverse effects caused by herbal medicines."

EU bans herbal remedies: another victory for corporate interests

Herbal medicines banned as EU directive comes into force

I have to wonder if having the ban in force for May Day morning was a very deliberate choice.