When Arabs first perfected the art of making “al-kohl” (cosmetic eye make-up) some one thousand years ago,[i] little did they think that “al-kohl” would one day became a cultural phenomenon. That “al-kohl” would morph into “alcoholic” as a commonly used noun for those who quite frankly, and sadly, succumbed to inherent chemical seduction. That once elusive quest by Arab alchemists to isolate purified hydroxyl (OH) compounds through a process of distillation – for the chemists amongst us, today, takes on the distinct cultural meaning of “having fun,” “letting loose,” “getting hammered,” and of course various other descriptions that could be mistaken for being expletives.
The sad news of the death—and as many have said, a life “taken early”—of the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has rightly put the media focus back on the dangers of alcohol abuse, even if only temporarily. The post-mortem analysis concluded a death by haemorrhage linked to alcoholism; in other words, years of consuming large amounts of alcohol meant that the liver’s capacity to carry out its function, indeed, to maintain its own structural integrity even, had been critically damaged. In a healthy person the liver functions as the body’s “salvage factory,” catalysing all sorts of detoxification reactions, including for example, stripping old red blood cells of the brown colour that we see in our faeces. Thus, to the liver alcohol is a poison, and it kills.
Unfortunately, what often seems innocuous or occasional conformity to cultural norms linked to casual drinking ends up for some, for one reason or another, in a serious life-threatening liver condition. People develop, in the words of alcoholics themselves, a “physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession” to consume alcohol.[ii]
To make matters worse, the economic consequences of drinking alcohol as a cultural phenomenon aren’t good either. Alcohol causes of 4% of cancer cases in the UK.[iii] Come Friday nights and disorderly drunk behaviour takes over many of our public places. In fact, David Cameron rightly said, “Every night, in town centres, hospitals and police stations across the country, people have to cope with the consequences of alcohol abuse.”[iv] There are over 200,000 hospitals admissions related to alcohol each year – up 40% compared to 2002/3. As at 2012, the NHS spent £2.7b on alcohol related admissions – a staggering £90 for every taxpayer. The wider cost to society from alcohol is considered between £17b and £22b each year.
Socially, too, there are serious negative consequences. As normal civilising inhibitions are lost, unkind words about work colleagues and friends and family become standard exchanges between the drunk, frequently ending up with hurling abuse at passers-by. Then there is the stigmatisation and struggle of loved ones who feel helpless when alcoholism gets out of hand even if just on that odd occasion. An inability to learn from hangovers, vomiting, alcohol-induced blackouts, frequent or otherwise, it seems is not enough for some to resist temptation. Of course not everyone who drinks a couple of beers here and there— so-called “responsible drinking” or “drinking in moderation”— becomes an alcoholic over time. Though, even for them there are health consequences and socio-economic costs that remain.
The interesting thing is that the inherent addictive properties of alcohol lie in its intoxicating effects. It is unlike nicotine, for example, which is addictive without necessarily offering the same level of euphoria and mood enhancement. Whilst a disposition to alcoholism can owe itself to quite complex interrelated factors – genes and physiology to name a few, what experts say is that too often a dependency on alcohol comes from craving its rewarding effects. Back in the ninth century Arab chemists might have called this “kimiya al-sa’ada” or “alchemy of happiness.” For consumers of alcohol it means temporary relief: helping to forget one’s problems, suppressing painful memories, confiding into oneself by drinking alone, fulfilling a desire to artificially boost one’s moods and euphoria etc. etc.
Thank God for the likes of Alcoholics Anonymous (and others), without whom it is difficult to see how so many alcoholics would cope. But the real solution surely lies not in dealing with symptoms, but to have at hand a different medium to fall back to when all else seems to fail, before that first recourse or dependency on alcohol sets in. There was a time when, for many, this very safety net was faith and religion – in the hope and trust in God. But in today’s increasingly post-Christian society that we live in, that alternative recourse has become obscured, for which, Charles Kennedy’s death will sadly not be the last one. We should perhaps ask ourselves, have we as a society done enough to understand the meaning and role of faith in combating the problems of alcoholism?
[i] The English world “alcohol” was derived from the Arabic word “al-kohl.” The Cambridge World History of Food, 2000, Volume 1, p655. See also, The Economist, The Arabs discovered how to distil alcohol. They still do it best, say some, 18 Dec, 2013.
[ii] http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/About-AA/Newcomers/About-Alcoholism, retrieved 7/6/15.
[iii] http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/check-the-facts, retrieved 7/6/15.
[iv] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-highlights-impact-of-alcohol-on-nhs, retrieved 7/6/15.