The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

University alumni host debate on drugs and alcohol

“Drinking responsibly is good for society”, says pub chain boss

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Local experts and University of Manchester alumni debated whether alcohol is a “greater menace than drugs”, last week.

Arguing for the motion was Alan Higgins, director of public health for Greater Manchester.

William Lees-Jones, chief executive, JW Lees – a chain of 35 pubs across the north west, argued against the motion.

Lady Rhona Bradley, chief executive of ADS, a Manchester based charity that offers drugs and alcohol treatment, chaired the debate.

In his opening speech, Higgins cited a wide range of studies and statistics which illustrated the harm of drinking on society and health.

“Alcohol related incidents and illness cost Greater Manchester alone £1.2bn a year,” he said. “In 2009 there were over 69,000 incidents of domestic abuse. Alcohol was involved in ¼.”

He also added that, “half of Greater Manchester residents avoid the town centre at night because of drunks.”

Higgins went on to use David Nutt’s much discussed study in the Lancet, which concluded that alcohol is the most lethal out of all substances. It scored 4th in harm to users and top in harm to society.

In 2002 – 2004 alone, alcohol was responsible for the deaths of 25,000 people, compared with heroin being responsible for 4,976, and MDMA causing 227 in a longer time frame. Booze causes a problem, which in Higgins’ words is “industrial” in scale.

Lees Jones responded that, on average, adults in the UK consume 7.4 litres of alcohol – which is the same as Denmark. He added that “Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world. The abuse of alcohol is not a new problem, but drinking responsibly is good for society.

“Perhaps if drugs were regulated as much as alcohol they wouldn’t be as harmful”.

He continued further, “Obesity kills 6 times as many people in the UK as alcohol. Perhaps we should be debating whether food is greater menace than drugs, but that would be absurd”.

“The UK pub industry contributes £22 billion a year to the UK economy”, and booze is a “regulated industry. So you know what you’re getting, and by de facto anything illicit is more dangerous”.

“I won’t embarrass anyone by actually asking who has done cocaine in the last week, but the chances are the number is nowhere near as many as those who have had a drink”.

When asked by The Mancunion whether or not they would favour the legalisation, if not the total decriminalisation of drugs, the panellists were divided.

“I’m afraid none of us can give a straight answer to your question”, said Higgins.

He added that, “at no point would I say abolish alcohol, neither can I quite accept making everything legal”.

Lady Bradly responded by suggesting that a mix of legalisation and decriminalisation would not work. Having worked with many members of the criminal justice system, it would have to be “all or nothing”, and “the money saved would have to be poured into treatment”.

The final result of the vote was a 23 – 25 split against the motion that alcohol is a greater menace than drugs.

Discuss Manchester, who hosted the debate, is a ‘debating organisation’ founded by local executives Martin Carr, Michael Taylor, and Mike Emmerich. In the words of Taylor, it aims to “breathe intellectual life into our great city”.

Both Taylor and Emmerich are alumni of the University of Manchester.

Taylor read Sociology from 1985 – 1988, and served on The Mancunion. He went on to become an award winning journalist.

Emmerich is a former policy advisor to number ten, and was also Director of the Institute for Political & Economic Governance and associate dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Manchester, from 2002 – 2006.

The debate was held at the Albert Square Chop House, a pub and function room off Albert Square.