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Ban all booze! Or not?

Ban all booze! Or not?

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Paul Lemmens inspired by Griffith Edwards

Eloquent, erudite, but also arrogant. These are the characteristics of British psychiatrist Griffith Edwards (1928-2012), an authority in the field of alcohol addiction. Edwards would have liked to have banned all alcohol, says addiction specialist Paul Lemmens, but when you met him at home, port flowed liberally.

In the nineteenth century, alcohol abuse was considered a social problem, at the beginning of the twentieth century, addiction was becoming medicalized, says Lemmens, researcher at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences. “After the fiasco of prohibition in the US, alcohol addiction became a disease and the alcoholic a patient. There were no effective treatments, but that was apparently not an impediment. In this medical model, the alcoholics were the problem, while the drinking behaviour of the rest of the population remained under the radar.”

In the nineteen-fifties, criticism about this model grew. One of the critics was Griffith Edwards, one of the few psychiatrists at the time who was also involved in public health. “With the advance of epidemiology, Edwards and his team formulated a theory that was based on the population as a whole, the so-called population model. In this vision, addiction was a problem that concerned all of society. Because the greater the total alcohol consumption, the greater the abuse and harm, such as traffic accidents, violence on the streets, psychiatric misery, liver damage, cancer, et cetera.”

This school strived to ban alcohol from society as much as possible, and this is still current. It is also what WHO wants, especially for Europe. “Our continent drinks the most, by far. It is also where most alcohol-related fatalities occur. The Dutch Institute for Alcohol Policy (STAP) is also an advocate of a far-reaching moderation of alcohol consumption.”

In this climate, scientists are expected to take a more and more activist stand, in order to improve health, certainly in the politicized world of alcohol research, says Lemmens. “If I carry out research commissioned by the industry, then I have some explaining to do in certain scientific circles. The well-known journal Addiction, of which Edwards was the editor in chief, also supports the population model. He brought me in as assistant editor for the journal after we had written a book together.”

Edwards was like a “father figure” for Lemmens. “He was one of my heroes: quick-witted, funny, a man of reading, someone who knew how the world was put together. But also arrogant, rigorous and even cunning. When the industry called upon all researchers to openly discuss the population model, Edwards contacted The Independent. There was commotion and the industry’s initiative died an early death. Edwards led a true crusade against the industry. Researchers who criticised the population model, didn’t need to bother approaching Addiction.”

Edwards had some appreciation for measures aiming at ‘harm reduction’, as promoted by the Dutch government (not criminalising, tolerating, exchanging injection needles, testing XTC pills), as long as it concerned drugs, but not in the case of alcohol. “An Addiction editor once wrote a book about it. Later on he was dragged through the mud, partly by Edwards’ doing.”

Lemmens visited Edwards at home once in a while and discovered that the man of principle was not averse to, a glass of wine or two. “On one occasion the publisher of Addiction had organised a party in a stately home in Windsor Great Park. It was the publisher himself who was handing out bottles of port. It just goes to show, and that is my conviction too, that alcohol and drugs cannot be rooted out and that an all-out ban is not realistic.”

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