Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Charlie Sheen is not alone - alcoholism is set to double. Are we the 'Sheenius' generation?

Charlie Sheen has taken to referring to himself on twitter as 'The Sheenius'.  As his father Martin Sheen told Kirsty Young on the BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs, ‘Charlie is dealing with the most profound problems and addiction'.  All sympathy to them both given that alcohol addiction has at best a 30% chance of being defeated even after rehab - or as Charlie, sadly but accurately has said -only a 5% chance if you take the Alcoholics Anonymous route.  

But while the Sheens battle so publicly with the disatrous effects of alcohol abuse and 'Bosses at CBS will be praying that Sheen can finally clean-up his act and that he can over-come his legal woes', up to 10% of the population will also be coping with alcoholism and more again are affected by related problems such as marital violence, crime, career threatening binges and mental-health problems that just won't go away.  Or at least alcoholics used to be 10% of the population.  New research has revealed that in the next ten years we could be looking at an epidemic doubling of that figure. 

Charlie Sheen and Snoop Dogg on Twitter
April was World Alcohol Awareness month, and a good time to take stock of the wealth of research evidence made available about our favourite drug.  A major national American study of teenage drinking habits and attitudes over the past three years brings news that 73 percent of teens report 'having friends who drink alcohol at least once a week'.  The report concludes that  'alarming patterns in early adolescent alcohol use' are emerging, including the finding that 'teens view drinking alcohol – even heavy drinking – as less risky than using other substances'.  And as underage drinking 'becomes more normalized among adolescents, parents feel unable to respond to the negative shifts in teen drug and alcohol use'.  More worrying still, of teens who drink, 60% drink 'for fun' while one in three said they drank “to forget their troubles.” Almost one in four said they used alcohol to help them “deal with problems at home” and one in five reported that they drank to “deal with the pressures and stress of school".  A generation, in other words, which is using alcohol to cope with pretty well every emotion - positive and negative - that life can throw at them.

40% of those who drink by the age of 15 will become alcoholics

Of those who drink, the average age at which they started drinking is also lower.  62% said they had their first full alcoholic drink by age 15 and 25 percent said they drank a full alcoholic drink for the first time by age 12 or younger', making 'the average age of first alcohol use 14'.  This is more alarming when it is realised that the:

“Age of first use is critically important: research has shown that more than 40 percent of those who start drinking at age 14 or younger developed alcohol dependence, compared with 10 percent of those who began drinking at age 20 or older”.

In other words if 50% of teenagers are drinking (as they are in the UK and Ireland) and 40% of those will develop alcohol dependence, a potential 20% of the population could be alcoholics within ten years.

How alcohol permanently changes brain chemistry

These American statistics should be understood in the context of the World Health Organasation’s Global Alcohol Survey which rates drinking patterns in the US as lower in terms of quantity and health risks than those in the UK and Ireland - countries in which the boom in teenage drinking has already been well documented.  And why that critical first use and bingeing are so dangerous is explored in yet another piece of scientific research tracing the negative and permanent effects of alcohol on the brain's chemistry.  In the Univeristy of Mannheim study Neuropharmacology of Alcohol Addiction , Vengeliene and Co. report that: 
“Following long-term...alcohol consumption virtually all brain neurotransmission seems to be affected, contributing to….the transition from controlled to compulsive alcohol use.  Compulsive alcohol drinking is characterized by a decrease in the function of the reward neurocircuitry and a recruitment of antireward/stress mechanisms comes into place”
In other words, alcohol permanently changes the brain's chemistry and how we feel, and is highly addictive because of it.   This is knowledge that the alcohol industry does not want us to have according to the medical historian John C Burnham in his book 'Bad Habits'. Quoting the industry mantra that ‘the root of the problem drinker’s disease lies in the man and not in the bottle’, Burnham notes that ‘the money spent on individualising the problem (by the industry) paid off handsomely,  not in solving drinking problems but in diverting the public’s attention away from the industry’.

Industry targets young people

And if the industry does understand that its product is highly addictive, it might explain why it is apparently motivated to get large quantities of it into the mouths of teenagers through the development of teen-appealing products and mass marketing aimed at that age group.  In looking at statistics it is hard not to be reminded of  Mark Twain's famous phrase, attributed to Disraeli, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.’  Had either man lived into our own century they would certainly have changed 'statistics' to 'marketing'.  We like to flatter ourselves that we do not succumb to advertising puff, but that the alcohol industry invests £600 million per year in the UK alone tells us otherwise.  Advertising is arguably having the effect of normalising a behaviour that is inherently very dangerous, and the most susceptable to it are our teenagers.  A new Australian study found that:
It is clear that children and youth are exposed to, remember, and like alcohol advertising; and that there is an association between young people’s exposure to and liking of advertisements and current and future drinking. The evidence of a direct association between advertising exposure and underage drinking is mounting, with empirical evidence from recent longitudinal studies showing a direct measurable effect of exposure on drinking initiation and consumption levels.
This week in Australia the government is considering a ban on the mix of alcohol and caffeine which many believe is marketed directly at young people.  ‘An international conference on drugs and young people heard that these drinks are more harmful and more attractive to young people and that they should be banned in Australia.  Meanwhile in Ireland, Diageo must have been looking at the statistics telling them that young women are the emerging market for alcohol products.  They chose Alcohol Awareness month to launch a new drink targetted at this sector of their market.  'Eve' is a kind of beer ‘specifically developed for the female market’, ‘ best-served chilled in a champagne flute, perfect for enjoying in the company of good friends in bars, cafés or at home’. To celebrate the launch, 'leading Irish stylist Angela Scanlon selected a special eve collection, “the ultimate capsule wardrobe” inspired by eve'.  Sheenius.

As with tobacco, the industry is upping the addictive content of their product

Developing new markets is one leg of the industry’s aim, upping the addictive and harmful alcohol content is another.  As Professor Nutt wrote in the Guardian 
Heavily discounted super-strength lagers target the most vulnerable people in society.  For a few pounds customers can buy enough alcohol to exceed the weekly recommended allowance. Alcohol harm is directly related to the amount consumed, though in a non-linear way. So, for example, people in the UK drink about twice as much alcohol per year on average as people in Sweden drink and experience roughly three times the harms and damage.
What is behind this new trend in super-strength lagers and ciders and why are they so cheap? Apologists for the alcohol industry say that it is simply meeting market demand, failing to mention that before these drinks were made available there was no demand [for increased alcohol content]. Just as with the invention of alcopops, one suspects the motive for creating such products is to fuel demand rather than to satiate it. The more alcohol people consume, the more they become dependent on it, so sales rise.
And while average beer strength has grown - from 3 to 6% so too has the strenght of wine.  The average bottle of wine has increased from 9% in 1978 to 12.5% today and wine drinkers - women in particular - may be at risk without realising how strong that glass of wine really is.
Professor Nutt himself, of course, famously revised the way in which addictive substances are ranked in order of harm.  Naturally he advised the UK government that alcohol, considered this way, came top of the list - as it surely does.  Unnaturally, he was then sacked by Health Minister Alan Johnson for his honesty.


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  2. The growing number of people who are addicted to alcohol is alarming. And is set to double? This is really bad. Alcohol is the number reason of road accidents, homicide, etc. We have to do something about it.

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