Written for Felix, Imperial College London’s student newspaper.
There’s undoubtedly a debate to be had about alcohol, but the Social Issues Research Centre ignores basic chemistry to push a click-bait message.
For all the millions it spends on cultivating an image of arch sophistication, Stella is still stuck with its “wife-beater” epithet – even more so now it’s become the tipple of choice for tosspot terriers. But the story of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier attacking a child after someone poured Stella down its throat isn’t the only piece about alcohol abuse that stood out recently.
A couple of weeks ago, the online BBC News Magazine ran an opinion piece (“Is the alcohol message all wrong?”) by Kate Fox, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), a not-for-profit organisation based in Oxford that researches and monitors social and cultural trends. SIRC conducts most of its research by reviewing social-anthropological studies. In the BBC article, Fox seeks to put paid to “bizarre beliefs and weird customs” such as the notion that “heavy drinking causes promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour”. A key claim is that “[t]he effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol”.
Now, I’m no expert on alcohol – not scientifically speaking – but that sounds odd to me. Having only just escaped the death penalty with a plea of diminished responsibility, I’m not sure that dog would be too pleased with the suggestion either. Looking for a second opinion, I contacted Dr. Robert Patton of King’s College London, who is the Health Services Research Coordinator for the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust Addictions Division, and who worked for the Home Office Drugs Prevention Initiative as a consultant in the 1990s.
“I had seen that article and did raise an eyebrow at those comments”, Patton said. I asked him about the idea that changes in behaviour were caused by cultural norms rather than chemicals. “While it is true to say that there is an expectation of the effect of alcohol that does to an extent modify behaviour”, he said, “the fact is that alcohol is a drug that does influence behavior in many ways, particularly those concerned with impulsivity (and restraint), aggression and coordination”.
Even judging by the comments Fox’s article received – over 1000 in half a day, many of them removed by moderators – SIRC’s position seems to be somewhat controversial. Helpfully, one of the commenters linked to a British Medical Journal editorial from way back in 1999 that expressed concern about SIRC’s close connections with MCM Research, a “commercial market research company” with several drinks companies as clients, including The Amsterdam Group, which numbers Bacardi-Martini, Bass Brewers, Carlsberg, Guinness, and Heineken among its members.
The BMJ also discussed SIRC’s criticism at the time of the media’s role in health scares (SIRC also apparently coined the word “riskfactorphobia” back then, but we’ll let that slide) and presciently asked, “how seriously should journalists take an attack from an organisation that is so closely linked to the drinks industry? If, for example, the centre attacked newspapers for exaggerating the effects of alcohol and thereby causing an unnecessary scare, could the centre put its hand on its heart and claim that it was totally neutral on the issue?”
Keen to get a clearer idea of where the organisation was coming from, and whether the BMJ’s concerns were still appropriate today, I spoke to Peter Marsh, SIRC’s other co-director. Marsh told me that MCM Research was “not actually trading in its own right very much these days” but that the work now goes through SIRC. SIRC’s website states that it is now the host for reports and materials of both groups. But on the question of how SIRC maintained independence in its research, Marsh was very keen to establish that the centre hasn’t done work for the drinks industry for several years, and that the last commission in this area “in a 5 year timeframe” was for Greene King on the role of the pub in the local community. That said, he also told me that Fox’s recent opinion piece is based on work begun 15 years ago.
But what of Fox’s assertion about the chemical effects of ethanol – or lack of them? Isn’t it dangerously misleading to suggest that drunken behaviour is simply a cultural norm that people conform to? “Except it happens to be true”, Marsh said, reiterating Fox’s observations, “in this country we expect [alcohol] to make us aggressive … You don’t get that in many other countries”. According to Marsh, “The only common chemical action is to make people go to sleep … the idea somehow that just consuming alcohol compels people to go and beat people up is not supported, certainly by our reading of the cross-cultural evidence”.
Whether or not SIRC have conflicts of interest, it seems irresponsible to draw such stark conclusions about the chemical effects of alcohol solely from anthropological evidence. SIRC’s overall position – that cultural aspects of alcohol abuse need addressing – is uncontroversial. The UK certainly has a problem with alcohol and fresh ideas are needed, but a debate that begins with an equivocation over what it is to be drunk in the first place is not the way to go.
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