Alcohol more harmful than heroin, cocaine, study finds
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Monday, November 1, 2010 2:19PM EDT
Alcohol is the "most harmful" of a list of 20 drugs -- more dangerous even than crack cocaine and heroin -- according to a new study released Monday.
The study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, rated the drugs using a 100-point scale that weighed the physical, psychological and social problems they caused and determined that alcohol was the most harmful overall.
The study gave alcohol a score of 72 out of 100 overall -- nearly three times the score given to cocaine and tobacco.
Dr. David Nutt, a former drugs advisor to the British government and co-author of the study, said that researchers looked at both the effects the drug had on users and the effect it had on society overall. He told CTV News Channel that the social costs of alcohol were what drove it into the top spot as the most harmful drug overall.
"Behind crack cocaine, heroin, (and) crystal meth … it was the fourth most toxic drug to the individual," Nutt said.
"The real reason it got to the top of the list was when we looked at the social harms, alcohol scored very high because of the crime, traffic accidents, the economic costs of for instance not coming to work because you're hung over, the violence in families, those sorts of things."
The study found that heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine posed the most danger to an individual, with scores of 34, 37 and 32 respectively. When the wider social effects were factored in, alcohol scored a 72, followed by heroin at 55, and crack cocaine with a score of 54.
Marijuana, ecstasy and LSD scored far lower in the study, which was paid for by Britain's Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
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 at every football game," said Wim van den Brink, a professor of psychiatry and addiction at the University of Amsterdam who co-authored a commentary on the study, also published 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.
The study's authors said their findings suggest that illicit drug laws have "little relation to the evidence of harm."
Nutt said that the decision to make marijuana illegal and alcohol legal is not based on how harmful they are either to users or to society as a whole.
"It's not a scientific decision, it's a political decision or some kind of moral decision."
They recommended that governments target the harmful effects of alcohol as "a valid and necessary public health strategy."
But experts said it would be impractical and incorrect to outlaw alcohol and suggested .
"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."
Instead, they recommended governments target problem drinkers, not the vast majority of people who drink only occasionally. They also said more education programs on the dangers of alcohol are needed and recommended higher prices so it isn't as widely available.