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Addictive, Harmful, Toxic, Celebrated. Cheers to that!

There are very many things in the world that truly fascinate me. Concepts, product, ideals or behaviours which are often widely accepted, but are actually very bizarre – if we take a moment to reflect on them…

Things that would be hard to explain to an alien life-form, for example!

Diet Coke is one example. A product for which we expend enormous quantities of energy to develop and produce, vast sums of carbon released in the process, and all for the intended and advertised outcome of, well, zero!

Something that takes large inputs and is designed to give us nothing – in a world that is finite.

Totally bizarre.

Another, is alcohol. Have you ever stood back and thought about how we treat this drug – because let’s be honest, that’s what it is. Now I am going to openly acknowledge that I enjoy a glass of wine, or bubbles, or a cool beer. But at the end of the day, this is an addictive, behaviour-influencing substance – linked to cancers, mental illness, physical injury and more.

So how did such a drug become so central to our mainstream (global) culture? When our day goes well, we have champagne… When our friends visit, we have a beer… When the day goes badly, we often have a glass of wine or something ‘harder’. We use alcohol to relax, we use it to have the confidence to speak to the opposite sex. It is a social lubricant, a mark of accomplishment and celebration, a representation of coming-of-age and a sophisticated accompaniment to food.

One would be hard pressed to think of another addictive drug (I know, controversial to call it this, but let’s stick to the facts and keep emotion out of it) that we treat this way.

Imagine a friend came to you, told you he or she is using an addictive substance. That he or she uses this substance to relax some nights each week, uses it most nights, uses it to have the confidence to do things he or she would otherwise not do, and used lots of it with friends for leisure – wouldn’t alarm bells be ringing?

But if it’s alcohol, everyone relaxes!

Many say that with increasing evidence linking alcohol to chronic disease, it is an inevitability that alcohol (particularly hard alcohol) will go down the same track as tobacco in the coming 50 years… Hard to imagine, but then again, maybe it would have been hard to imagine for the smokers living in the 50s, a time when “Doctors smoked X”…

Either way, I think it is healthy once in a while, to take a step back from your glass and realise this isn’t a harmless staple of living… This isn’t bread or water.

This is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol.

We know it can be addictive, we know it’s harmful to our health and we know it causes an enormous burden to our society. Yet whether it’s a birth, a graduation, a dinner party or a camping trip – it’s likely to be there.

The alcohol industry may spend large sums to help us resist questioning our relationship with alcohol, but let’s be honest – this relationship is truly bizarre.

Please check out our NCDFREE campaign, running this month. With your words and actions, NCDFREE can change the story for the 70 people worldwide who die each minute from preventable diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancers, and lung disease…

The Conversation

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Alessandro Demaio

Alessandro Demaio

Dr Alessandro Demaio, or Sandro, trained and worked as a medical doctor at The Alfred Hospital in Australia. While practicing as a doctor he completed a Master in Public Health including fieldwork to prevent diabetes through Buddhist Wats in Cambodia. In 2010, he relocated to Denmark where he completed a PhD with the University of Copenhagen, focusing on non-communicable diseases. His doctoral research was based in Mongolia, working with the Ministry of Health. He designed, led and reported a national epidemiological survey, sampling more than 3500 households. Sandro held a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard Medical School from 2013 to 2015, and was assistant professor and course director in global health at the Copenhagen School of Global Health, in Denmark. He established and led the PLOS blog Global Health, and served on the founding Advisory Board of the EAT Foundation: the global, multi-stakeholder platform for food, health and environmental sustainability. To date, he has authored over 23 scientific publications and more than 85 articles and blogs. In his pro bono work, Dr Demaio co-founded NCDFREE, a global social movement against noncommunicable diseases using social media, short film and leadership events – crowdfunded, it reached more than 2.5 million people in its first 18 months. Then, in 2015, he founded festival21, assembling and leading a team of knowledge leaders in staging a massive and unprecedented, free celebration of community, food, culture and future in his hometown Melbourne. In November 2015, Sandro joined the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization’s global headquarters, as Medical Officer for noncommunicable conditions and nutrition. From 2017, he is also co-host of the ABC television show Ask the Doctor – an innovative and exploratory factual medical series broadcasting weekly across Australia. Sandro is currently fascinated by systems-innovation and leadership; impact in a post-democracy; and the commercial determinants of disease. He also loves to cook.

1 comment

  • It would be interesting to hear about alcohol abuse from a Muslim perspective, given consumption of alcohol is forbidden under Islamic law.

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