Study: alcohol and tobacco ‘riskier’ than some illegal drugs

Scientists call for a more rational debate about the relative risks posed by drugs as a study shows that alcohol and tobacco cause more physical and social harm than some illicit substances.

The authors of the study entitled ‘Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse’, argue that the current methodology and processes underlying drug-classification systems are generally “neither specified nor transparent, which reduces confidence in their accuracy and undermines health- education messages”. 

The researchers have developed and tested a new framework to assess the actual risks posed to society by selected illegal drugs. Five legal drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, were also taken on board and classified for reference in the study, based on three parameters: physical harm, dependence and social harm.

The research results, published on 24 March 2007 by The Lancet Magazine, a British medical journal, show that alcohol and tobacco, which together account for about 90% of all drug-related deaths in the UK, are among the top ten most dangerous substances. They rank higher (alcohol fifth, tobacco ninth) than some illegal substances such as cannabis (11th) or ecstasy (18th). Heroin and cocaine rank respectively first and the second.

“Our results emphasise that the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the [UK] Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary. We saw no clear distinction between socially acceptable and illicit substances. This should be taken into account in public debate on illegal drug use,” concludes the study.

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