Should alcohol be classified as a high risk drug?

 

Tuesday 06 November 2007

Health researchers at the University of Otago, Christchurch and the Medical Research Institute in Wellington are arguing that alcohol is a high risk drug according to the national classification regulations. This follows comparative research with another similar, but illegal drug, into its effect on public health.

The results of this study are being presented at the APSAD/Cutting Edge Conference at the Aotea Centre in Auckland on November 7.

“There’s no doubt that alcohol is a potentially dangerous drug when we look at the mayhem it causes in relation to public health, crime, and social disruption,” says principal investigator Professor Doug Sellman, from the University’s National Addiction Centre. “Following this peer-reviewed analysis we think the time has come for a serious reappraisal of the way drugs are classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1975)”.

The research consisted of a comparison of alcohol with a similar liquid sedative drug, gamma hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) or ‘Fantasy’, which was scheduled as a Class B1 (high risk) drug under the Act in 2001.

Under the six main criteria for classification under the law they found that the risk to public health from alcohol is at least at the level of GHB, and alcohol could be argued to be a ‘somewhat more dangerous drug because of its greater inherent toxicity’. The disinhibited intoxication of alcohol also tends to be of greater duration than GHB.

The researchers point out that the negative influence of alcohol has been recognised for decades, contributing to a significant proportion of the global burden of disease. Alcohol has been linked to more than 60 medical conditions, with half the alcohol-related deaths in New Zealand attributable to chronic diseases, especially cancers. The other half are due to injuries while under the influence, especially amongst young people.

Most studies have concluded that there are no health benefits from alcohol before middle age, and the much publicised cardio-protective effect of drinking only occurs in men over 40 and women post-menopause.

“Despite this we’re not saying that alcohol should be prohibited. We simply want its dangerousness better publicised” says Professor Sellman. “What the results of our analysis can contribute is a more objective perspective on alcohol, especially in relation to other recreational drugs”.

The researchers say that this study highlights the limitations of drug classification in New Zealand and other western countries when alcohol and tobacco, the two drugs we know most about, are excluded from consideration. This is a situation which has been described in one UK report as an ‘un-evidence-based mess’.

Professor Sellman argues that including tobacco and alcohol in the evaluation of drugs and their risks to public health, would hopefully result in a more rational discussion about recreational drug use in general, leading to more effective public policy.

Source of press release

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