Health risks of alcohol mean it should be treated like a drug

Around 2.4 billion people globally drink alcohol, a drug which alters perception and ­depresses brain function – and now we know the only safe level of consumption is zero.

Its health risks include a range of cancers, and any possible heart ­benefits are smaller than we previously thought. So if alcohol suddenly ­became available now it would, ­without doubt, be classed as a drug.

Alcohol harms users in a range of ways. Through intoxication, organ toxicity and addiction, it causes an estimated 2.8 million deaths every year. But on the way to death it’s responsible for inebriation, crime, illness and debility.

According to expert opinion, alcohol is the drug that causes most harm in the UK – more than heroin, crack, or tobacco. Like tobacco, alcohol kills some users slowly through the diseases it causes. Unlike tobacco, alcohol also kills quickly, through injury and poisoning. Consequently, deaths occur at younger ages on average than those caused by tobacco.

As is the case for many illegal drugs, alcohol intoxication also causes harm to others, including injury, dangerous behaviour and sexually transmitted infections from unprotected sex.

Although there’s a difference in the number of deaths from alcohol and tobacco, the difference in years of life lost is smaller for alcohol. In England these were estimated to be 301,000 years for alcohol compared with 360,000 for tobacco in 2015. That year, alcohol alone accounted for 16% of all work days lost in England.

Alcohol is produced by an “addiction industry” – one that is involved in promoting products and activities known to cause addiction and ­problems such as smoking, drinking and gambling. These industries profit from addiction. They’re also known for not promoting countermeasures such as education on drinking’s hazards, how to drink moderately, and seeking treatment for problems with alcohol.

An obvious feature of the addiction industries is that they provide pleasure to their users. A more holistic approach to problems must take this into account and could be helped by new forms of user-friendly strategies.

Two professors, Kypros Kypri of Newcastle University and Jim ­McCambridge of York, are in favour of a unified approach to the three main socially acceptable addictions – smoking, drinking and gambling.

Re-categorising alcohol as a drug would bring all addictive drugs together rather than treating them separately as we now do.

Drinkers might feel judged if labelled as drug users, but pretending alcohol is anything but a drug is perhaps doing them an equal ­disservice.

Would this approach work? It would, but don’t hold your breath.