Some people may get the impression that it’s safer to kick back with a little crack cocaine or heroin rather than imbibing a few cocktails after they read recent headlines reporting on a new study in the Lancet medical journal. Professor David Nutt, chairman of Britain’s Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) and expert adviser to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), devised a new scale and used multicriteria decision analysis to rank the most harmful drugs based on the damage they inflict to the user as well as the wider society and found that alcohol was the most harmful overall. In fact, the authors assert that alcohol is almost three times as harmful as cocaine or tobacco.
“Alcohol is more dangerous than cocaine? Well, that’s quite a headline until you actually read the article and find that the criteria used in this study are quite different than what one might imagine,” says ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.
In his risk assessment, Dr. Nutt defined personal harm criteria to be drug-specific or drug-related death, damage to health, drug dependence and loss of relationships, while harm to others consisted of crime, environmental damage, family conflict, international damage, economic cost and damage to community cohesion.
Dr. Whelan was further troubled that the researchers categorized alcohol as the most dangerous drug based on its more profound societal effects, not individual health effects. “This is a matter of dose, and the study presupposes that everyone who drinks alcohol is abusing it, when in fact moderate alcohol consumption can actually increase longevity.”
Drugs were given a “harmfulness score” of between zero and 100, with alcohol receiving a score of 72, followed by heroin (55) and crack (54). The least-harmful drugs were found to be magic mushrooms with a measly score of just 5, while LSD raked in 7 points, and anabolic steroids and ecstasy each received a score of 9.
ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross points out that Dr. Nutt’s criteria is a figment of his own personal anti-alcohol agenda and the scale used is completely arbitrary. “According to this ranking system, tobacco is rated as the sixth most harmful drug! Yet, when we survey the health-related consequences of these substances, we find cigarette-related disease and death ubiquitous, while most of the others are much less apparent. This study can be easily misunderstood, and kids will say to themselves, ‘Cocaine isn’t nearly as bad as alcohol or cigarettes, so why shouldn’t I use it?’ This is a completdely inappropriate way to judge the potential harm of a substance.”
Dr. Ross further notes that it is not valid to compare the harm of a substance such as alcohol, which is used by over one billion people, to the much smaller cohort of individuals who use illicit drugs. “I condemn this study for its faulty criteria and the alarmist headlines that ran with this idea even further.“