I’ve been meaning to write about Professor David Nutt’s attempts to create a hangover-free form of alcohol for some time, but haven’t got round to it until now! Professor Nutt, you may recall, was an advisor on illegal drugs to the then Labour home secretary Alan Johnson. He suggested that ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse riding. Now, in terms of death and injury, on a purely statistical basis, he may have been right, but the comparison shows a not-real-world naivety in terms of how he must have imagined this would go down with his boss, who promptly sacked him.
But the good professor is nothing if not consistent. His new product, fetchingly called alcosynth, will, he says, replace regular alcohol by 2050. He has stated that: “The drinks industry knows that by 2050 alcohol will be gone. They know that and have been planning for this for at least ten years. But they don’t want to rush into it, because they’re making so much money from conventional alcohol.” Well, I have been accused of being quite close to the drinks industry, but the last time I spoke to “Big Alcohol” it never mentioned this to me! Sounds like a bit of wishful thinking from an entrepreneurial academic pushing what is, essentially, a kind of “legal high” with a novel marketing plan. It is unclear to me if alcosynth would be unlawful under the New Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, but I suspect it would.
According to Nutt, he has invented a form of synthetic alcohol that will allow people to enjoy the sociable effects of a few pints, “but skip the hangover that usually follows”. Quoted in the Independent he said: “So we know where the good effects of alcohol are mediated in the brain, and can mimic them. And by not touching the bad areas, we don’t have the bad effects.” You can have the pleasure without the pain! What an affront to puritanical thinking, no wonder Alan Johnson sacked him!
Advocates of alcosynth believe it could revolutionise public health by relieving the burden of alcohol-related harms on the health service. Now, I’m all in favour of finding private sector solutions to public health problems, such as e-cigarettes, which provide a safer nicotine delivery system to the conventional one that involves setting fire to a tube of tobacco and inhaling the smoke, but I really don’t think the comparison holds up. In addition to alcosynth, we have also recently seen the development of a powdered form of alcohol called Palcohol – flavoured, powdered alcohol added to water; and also vaporised alcohol that you can inhale. The government has now altered the legal definition of alcohol to include the powdered variety.
Now, powdered alcohol and alcohol vapour producers don’t claim their products can deliver problem-free intoxication, but the development of all these products plays into the hands of the alcophobes of “public health” because one of the techniques they use to de-normalise alcohol use is to take the drinking of it completely out of its social and cultural context and say it is “just another drug”. Once we separate ethyl alcohol from beverage alcohol – from the tradition of craft and flavour, and the use of natural ingredients and local provenance – then those of us who defend the drinking of beverage alcohol as a lawful and socially acceptable activity are placed in an untenable position.
There is, of course, a much simpler way of avoiding a hangover, and that is to drink in moderation. Also, it is unclear whether Professor Nutt’s alcosynth will deliver the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption – you know, those benefits that “public health” are in denial about – such as reduced risk of all-cause mortality and reduced incidence of ischaemic heart disease and stroke.
Nice try professor, but I don’t think I’ll be abandoning my pint of IPA just yet!