Is alcohol the most dangerous drug?

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Is alcohol the most dangerous drug?

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The story

The headlines that hit every news broadcast that I heard on Monday reported that ‘alcohol is more dangerous than heroin’.  This was taken from a report put together by the Independent Committee on Drugs of which Professor Nutt, the sacked government chief drugs advisor, is a member.

Inevitably, the news reports tended to focus just on the inflammatory headline and by concentrating on the label that alcohol is ‘the most dangerous drug’ it does look like the study concluded that one sip of wine could cause you to keel over.  However, by reading the abstract of the article you can see that the committee looked at a variety of criteria and it was because of alcohol’s high impact on the well-being of many people, not just the user, which placed it higher than other drugs.

Facts about drinking problems outlines the problems associated with alcohol abuse.

The fact that this report has got so much media attention is I feel a good thing, as it brings to our attention these problems and gives an opportunity to discuss this in the classroom.  The story can be used in KS4 science and PSHE classes and gives scope for some heated debates and discussions.

Teaching ideas

I would simply ask students the question: ‘Which is worse – alcohol or ecstasy?’ and gauge their reactions.  Ask for a show of hands for each drug.  Almost certainly their first instinct would be to choose ecstasy (unless they have been watching the news recently!).

You could then go onto discuss what criteria they would use to judge how dangerous a drug is:  Do they use the UK drugs classification system?  In this case, ecstasy being a class A drug is definitely more dangerous than the unclassified alcohol.

What about looking at deaths caused to the individual by each drug? As you can see this table from the Drugscope website, tobacco comes out on top here.

Finally, what about the danger to others?  It is here that alcohol comes into its own, being the cause of many accidents and violent crimes and not to mention the effects it has on the emotional well-being of families of an alcohol addict.

To round the discussion off you could also show them the opinions of the public and experts from the video from the Horizon website and then ask for another show of hands – has anyone changed their mind?

To take this lesson idea further you could have a debate with the students over whether they think the drug classification system should be changed to show the findings of the committee.  Should alcohol now be a class A drug?  The students could take sides in the debate.

You could also discuss how Britain could deal with our alcohol problem.  If they were health secretary, what programmes would they put in place to ensure that we crawl out of this alcohol sodden mess we seem to find ourselves in?


Report in The Lancet

News story on this from The Guardian

This Horizon episode was aired in 2008 and came about because of an initial report from the drugs committee.

Video asking the public and experts which they think is more harmful: Alcohol or ecstasy?  Part of the BBC’s Horizon website.

Drugscope website