New Internationalist

Our Daily Fix

Issue 140

new internationalist
issue 140 October 1984

Our daily fix
We all use drugs every day - tea or coffee in the morning,
alcohol in the evening, pills to fight headaches or depression, perhaps cigarettes too.
Troth Wells shows how ‘the drug problem’ is not out there but within you and me.

LONG before the multi-coloured hippie experience there was another group of long-haired men and women who went in for drink, drugs and sex. The Bohemians, as they were known, lived in Paris in the 1840s. Although their sexual and drinking habits raised eyebrows, what really shocked Parisians was their use of a stimulant drug in large quantities. According to a later medical textbook it ‘made the sufferer tremulous, subject to fits of agitation and depression. The sufferers loses colour and has a haggard appearance’. The drug was coffee,

It’s hard to believe this could have caused such an uproar. But at the time coffee wasn’t socially acceptable and it gave Bohemian-watchers the justification to regard them as outcasts, much as we view glue-sniffers or heroin addicts now.

We easily forget that coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks all contain caffeine, a stimulant which affects the central nervous system. Many people use alcohol and tobacco, two of the most potent and destructive drugs of addiction. And as for tranquillisers, sleeping pills and analgesics like aspirin we like to think of these as ‘good’ drugs, beneficial to us and a million miles from cocaine or heroin. But we can’t escape the fact that they are all drugs which create psychological and physical dependency.

Two cups of coffee a day give a dose of 200 mg of caffeine — enough to have clinically significant effects. Some estimates reckon that anyone who is drinking more than six cups of coffee, or ten of tea a day may be running a health risk. At these levels you might get headaches, insomnia, dizziness. trembling, diarrhoea and anxiety symptoms. And before you take the next sip, caffeine can also induce heart palpitations and pulse irregularities.

We wear blinkers when looking at drugs. What we eat, smoke and drink are not labelled drugs but we are hooked just the same. Look at these facts.

Nearly quarter of all men and half that number of women smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day’. Six per cent of men and one per cent of women consistently exceed the medically safe limits on alcohol intake. One third of Canadians are addicted to caffeine.

Americans swallow 44 million aspirin tablets each day. They are equally popular elsewhere. Dr Michael Gossop, formerly of the Drug Dependency Unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, suggests that a quarter of a million Britons may be analgesic-abusers and more than a million use them every day. And tranquillisers? ‘Over 100.000 people in Britain would have full withdrawal problems if they were to stop their tranquilliser medication’ estimates Professor Malcolm Lader of the Institute of Psychiatry.

It’s an important point. How many of us ever have to go without our tobacco, caffeine, drink or pills? Our dependency would be starkly revealed if Prohibition started at midnight, or if we could only get coffee by sneaking up a dark alley to score.

Society’s disapproval of the use of drugs for non-medical purposes doesn’t square with the large quantities that are used in precisely this way to cheer us up or calm us down, often with a doctor’s blessing. Almost half of all the drugs prescribed in England are psychoactive (mood-altering) drugs or ones which affect the central nervous system.

These include tranquillisers like Valium. Librium and Mogadon. They also include barbiturate sleeping pills. ‘Barbs’, like Seconal and Nembutal, are probably the most dangerous of all the drugs we hardly count as drugs, and more dangerous in terms of overdosing and withdrawal syndrome than heroin, cocaine and LSD. Only tobacco is more addictive.

Does it matter if we’re hooked on a particular substance? Probably not in most cases. A drink or two in the evening helps put the tensions of the day into soft focus. Eating chocolate gives comfort. Valium can be a short-term help at a difficult time. What is important is that we recognise our own addictions and ask ourselves why we need that drug. Then we must take on the responsibility of judging which addictive substances are most harmful.

The first step is to ask why some drugs are legal and others not.

Take tobacco. Smoking is the most physically destructive of all forms of drug-taking. ‘It is more likely’ to produce dependence than using either barbiturates or alcohol,’ says Dr Gossop. ‘The nearest drug habit in terms of risk of becoming dependent is injecting heroin’. The Royal College of Physicians classes smoking as a cause of death alongside the great epidemic killers like typhoid, cholera and TB. One third of adult Americans and British smoke. Why has it not been made illegal?

British attempts to beef up the government health warning on a packet of cigarettes met with strong opposition from the tobacco industry’. In 1976 the Ministry of Health was poised to change the wording to the blunt ‘Danger: cigarettes cause lung cancer, bronchitis and heart disease’.   But the tobacco industry 'lobby’ held the trump card. Like many governments, the British exchequer does very well from its tobacco tax and would suffer from a fall in sales. And it saves big sums in state pensions as people die early from smoking. Finding the Government’s Achilles Heel ensured that the feeble warning ‘Smoking can seriously damage your health' remains.

Economic interests play a part in the use and acceptability of alcohol as well. In France, for instance, almost one third of the electorate works in some area of the drinks industry. Cutting down the use of alcohol would throw people out of work - something few governments would risk. With such high involvement in the alcohol business it is not surprising that the French drink more than anyone else, according to a US survey covering 20 countries. Correspondingly their rate of liver disease - result of alcohol – is one of the highest in the West.

Across the Atlantic the US alcoholic beverage industry grosses more than is spent on medical care and education together. The Philip Morris company’ (makers of Marlboro cigarettes) profit from both drinking and smoking - as well as being the world’s largest tobacco company, they are the second biggest producer of alcoholic drinks.

Superwoman - but how many everyday, legal drugs does she need to keep her going?
photo by Claude Sauvageot

Powerful lobbying by industry and loss of taxes are two reasons why the authorities do not outlaw our everyday drugs. Another reason is that government legislators are themselves hooked, seeing nothing strange in their caffeine fix, their 20 a day, their double whisky or their sleeping pill. For example, during the 1956 Suez crisis British Prime Minister Anthony Eden described how he was ‘living on benzedrine’ (an amphetamine drug or ‘speed’). Did this make him a junkie?

The double-think and hypocrisy about drugs was summed up by Al Capone during the Prohibition: ‘When I sell liquor it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality'. Power and privacy screen what drugs the rich use. It’s the poor on the streets who are outcasts.

The way society decides what is legal and safe is a haphazard business. At the time coffee was thought outrageous, opium was in vogue. Earlier, in seventeenth-century Russia the Tsar executed anyone found in possession of tobacco. Today Americans smoke 620 billion cigarettes every year. Outlawing a drug often has little to do with its safety and a lot to do with social tensions - for instance racism.

At the end of the last century. American newspapers carried lurid tales of crime and debauchery in the opium dens frequented by the immigrant Chinese. Anti-Chinese feelings were kindled into fear of their habits and the resulting hysteria led to the opium ban.

In the UK, moves to ban opiates reached a climax after rumours that Allied troops on leave in London during World War I were doping themselves on cocaine and morphine. And if ‘our boys’ were under the narcotics’ spell, went the argument, who could tell what secrets they might blab to the enemy? Opiates were outlawed for presenting a threat to National Security.

In the US, Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger spent most of the Thirties campaigning against cannabis. Colourful descriptions of what the drug was supposed to do captured the American imagination. Harry Anslinger tweaked the nerve that prompted white Americans to go along with the cannabis ban: not only was the drug foreign, but it was mainly smoked by Mexicans and blacks. At a time of feverish xenophobia this was a deft touch by the Commissioner.

It suits us to think of addicts as an alien. But we are all likely to be addicted for just the same reasons as ‘junkies’. The quest for altered states of consciousness - a buzz, a rosy view of the world - seems to be part of our nature. Why condemn people for choosing other drugs to the ones we use? We need to take a long hard look at those which cause least harm and at the interest groups behind some of the most dangerous. After all, Sigmund Freud gave up cocaine after three years’ use. But he couldn’t kick the tobacco habit.

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