It always puzzles me that the first – and most potent – drug that I crave on waking at dawn is widely available in shops, freely advertised everywhere, consumed by both adults and children, and not deemed to be poisonous, carcinogenic, or addictive. And that it’s only the second drug which is only available from behind shutters, illegal to advertise, forbidden to children, and deemed to be poisonous, carcinogenic, and addictive.
Because for the rest of the day I consume the two drugs in tandem at more or less the same rate. So how come only one of them is classed as an addictive drug? Shouldn’t they both be?
The second of the drugs, of course, is tobacco. And the first is tea. So when is the War on Tea going to start?
So I found myself interested by this Huffpo article today:
If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: “Drugs. Duh.” It’s not difficult to grasp… take a really potent drug for twenty days.There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.
One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did…
This somehow seemed entirely plausible. Next nicotine was considered:
Everyone agrees cigarette smoking is one of the most addictive processes around. The chemical hooks in tobacco come from a drug inside it called nicotine. So when nicotine patches were developed in the early 1990s, there was a huge surge of optimism — cigarette smokers could get all of their chemical hooks, without the other filthy (and deadly) effects of cigarette smoking. They would be freed.
But the Office of the Surgeon General has found that just 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers are able to stop using nicotine patches. That’s not nothing. If the chemicals drive 17.7 percent of addiction, as this shows, that’s still millions of lives ruined globally. But what it reveals again is that the story we have been taught about The Cause of Addiction lying with chemical hooks is, in fact, real, but only a minor part of a much bigger picture.
This has huge implications for the one-hundred-year-old war on drugs. This massive war — which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool — is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction — if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction — then this makes no sense…
In fact, I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that it’s more like only 1.7% of smokers that stop smoking using nicotine patches. They’re virtually useless.
And I couldn’t help but think that, if there was any truth to Prof Alexander’s findings, a War on Tobacco that has expelled many smokers from society is actually driving them into precisely the sort of social isolation that makes addictive behaviours (of all kinds) more likely.
But then I read who the author of this Huffpo article was: Johann Hari. This was a one-time Independent columnist who’d been found guilty of plagiarism. Could he be trusted? Had he turned over a new leaf?
Nor did it help that Noam Chomsky, Elton John, Naomi Klein, Stephen Fry and David Nutt had all praised Hari’s new book: Chasing The Scream.
I can only suppose that Prof Alexander’s 50-year-old research has had zero impact on the War on Tobacco (or more widely on the War on Drugs).
For there’s no letting up. It only ever get worse. The insanity never ends.
So back to my first question: When is the War on Tea going to start?