Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

Pathways to Problems - Hazardous use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs
by young people in the UK and its implications for policy.
September 14th 2006

 

 

Note: The ACMD have the legal duty under the Misuse of Drugs Act to provide Government with independent scientific advice about both drug risks and regulatory options.

 

 

1. Evidence that drugs with legal status, alcohol and tobacco, are essentially the same as drugs with illegal status:

(a) They are consumed for same purpose: “a large proportion of young people use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in the pursuit of pleasure, solace, acceptance or escape” [p.8, para 1].

(b)   They act on the brain the same: “Such drugs all act on the same areas of the brain, altering its normal function and hence the user’s experience” [p.8, para 1].

(c)    They have the same potential to cause harm: alcohol and tobacco’s “harmfulness to individuals and society is no less than that of other psychoactive drugs” [p.10, Recommendation 1].

(d)   They are viewed as the same by young people: “While tobacco, alcohol and other drugs all have differing legal status, many young people do not appear to recognise these distinctions” [p.64, para 4.46].

 

2. Evidence of the difference in treatment, the under-regulation of legal drugs and over-regulation of illegal drugs:

(a) “While prosecutions for the sale and possession of illegal drugs are common, prosecutions of vendors of cigarettes or alcohol to underage customers are very rare” [p.8, para 7].

(b) There are “heavy penalties for the sale and possession of illegal drugs” [p.8, para 7] and “controls on the availability, pricing and marketing … of illegal drugs [are] already highly restrictive” [p.47, para 3.36] while…

(c)    “Given what is now known about tobacco … it seems entirely unjustified that such a dangerous drug, clearly labelled as lethal, should still be sold to minors” [p.47, para 3.34]. “Alcohol companies have considerable freedom to market their products to young people using the full panoply of product development, advertising and other techniques” [p.42, Key Points].

 

3. Evidence that neither the under-regulation of legal drugs nor the over-regulation of illegal drugs is effective:

“Young people in the UK have little difficulty in obtaining tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, despite a legal framework designed to restrict their access to them. … While prosecutions for the sale and possession of illegal drugs are common, prosecutions of vendors of cigarettes or alcohol to underage customers are very rare” [p.8, para 7].

 

4. Evidence the ACMD has discriminated between equally harmful drugs (and those involved with them) on the unjustifiable ground of legal status:

“In its first 30 years, the ACMD has focused most of its attention on drugs that are subject to the controls and restrictions of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Although its terms of reference do not prevent it from doing so, the ACMD has not considered alcohol and tobacco other than tangentially. The scientific evidence is now clear that nicotine and alcohol have pharmacological actions similar to other psychoactive drugs. Both cause serious health and social problems and there is growing evidence of very strong links between the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. For the ACMD to neglect two of the most harmful psychoactive drugs simply because they have a different legal status no longer seems appropriate” [p.14, para 2].

 

5. ACMD want to educate all that the unequal treatment of legal and illegal drug consumers and traders is not objectively justifiable but instead is based on subjective factors, unjustifiable grounds related to cultural history:

“1.13 We believe that policy-makers and the public need to be better informed of the essential similarity in the way in which psychoactive drugs work: acting on specific parts of the brain to produce pleasurable and sought-after effects but with the potential to establish long-lasting changes in the brain, manifested as dependence and other damaging physical and behavioural side-effects. At present, the legal framework for the regulation and control of drugs clearly distinguishes between drugs such as tobacco and alcohol and various other drugs which can be bought and sold legally (subject to various regulations), drugs which are covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and drugs which are classed as medicines, some of which are also covered by the Act. The insights summarised in this chapter indicate that these distinctions are based on historical and cultural factors and lack a consistent and objective basis”.

 

6. Conclusion – ACMD recommend an end to unjustified discrimination between equally harmful drugs:

(a) “As their actions are similar and their harmfulness to individuals and society is no less than that of other psychoactive drugs, tobacco and alcohol should be explicitly included within the terms of reference of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs” [p.10, Recommendation 1].

(b) “We therefore recommend that a fully integrated approach should be taken to the development of policies designed to prevent the hazardous use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs” [p.11, Recommendation 11].