ONE of Britain's leading experts on the effects of drugs has called for drinking laws to be tightened up – and a big hike in the price of booze.
Professor David Nutt says the measures are needed because of a 'terrifying' health crisis linked to excessive drinking.
Formerly the Government's top drugs adviser, he was speaking in advance of a conference in Devon on psychiatry and mental health.
"There's a tidal wave of alcohol damage coming," he said. "The terrifying statistic is that within the next 20 years liver disease will take over from heart disease as the commonest cause of death, and that rise is due to excess drinking."
The rise was due to a drop in the real price of alcohol and an increase in its availability over recent years, he said. Both trends should be reversed through a large increase in the tax on booze, the setting of minimum prices in shops and a move away from 24-hour drinking.
"We should go back to the 11pm closing time," Prof Nutt said. "After that, alcohol should only be available in a controlled environment where the price was so high that less was drunk."
The measures would also help combat the huge amount of crime linked to alcohol, he argued, adding that the Government should consider raising the legal drinking age, although that would be a 'politically unacceptable' move.
Prof Nutt, a pharmacologist and psychiatrist based at Imperial College London, is no stranger to political controversy himself. In October he was sacked as chairman of the Advisory Council On the Misuse of Drugs after saying ecstasy caused less harm than horse-riding and opposing the Government's decision to upgrade the legal classification of cannabis from class C to class B.
He was accused by ministers of going beyond his brief of analysing and presenting scientific evidence, and instead attempting to change policy: but three other members of the panel resigned in protest over the chairman's treatment.
Prof Nutt stood by his comments as he prepared for the Peninsula Medical School conference at Dartington Hall, near Totnes.
"Gordon Brown says he believes in the scientific evidence when it comes to climate change – but not when it comes to drugs policy," he said.
Prof Nutt called for a rational and scientific debate on drugs policy, based on proven evidence on the relative harm done by substances. Such analysis showed alcohol and tobacco were more dangerous than many illegal drugs such as cannabis, LSD and ecstasy, he said.
"Ecstasy is currently in (the highest) class A which implies the risks are similar to heroin, which is quite wrong," he said.
The Government reclassified cannabis in class B largely due to concerns over the use of more potent grades of the drug, such as skunk, compared to less powerful hash. Ministers argue that when assigning drugs to classes, policymakers should err on the side of caution.
But Prof Nutt said that approach was misleading and might lead to users turning to more dangerous drugs than ecstasy and cannabis.
"There's no evidence that skunk is more harmful than hash," he said. "Most people adjust their dosing according to the strength. I think skunk is leading to a decline in cannabis use."
Prof Nutt said he advised his own children – aged 18 to 26 – 'not to take any drugs and to drink alcohol at a low level.
"I've always been more worried about them coming to harm through the effects of alcohol than drugs."
Prof Nutt said setting policy on drugs should be taken out of the hands of the Government and put in the hands of experts, just as the Bank of England fixed interest rates and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence decided which medicines should be available on the NHS.
December 14, 2009
This Is Plymouth
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Alcohol 'will become nation's biggest killer'