We have collectively been drinking alcohol for centuries. There is no strong taboo around its use, it is perfectly legal, and, for the most part, alcohol’s effects are can be quite enjoyable.
However, there is no doubt that alcohol has a dark side. Last year in Scotland, 22 people on average died a week due to harm caused by alcohol. Across the whole of the UK, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit estimates that binge drinking cost the NHS £3.5billion – and this also fails to take into account the cost of alcohol-related crime or lost productivity from being hungover.
Enter alcosynth. This new drug was developed by Professor David Nutt, who became a well-known character after being dismissed from a governmental advisory panel in 2009 for claiming that horse riding was more dangerous than ecstasy. Alcosynth is said to mimic the ‘tipsy’ effects of alcohol and is also non-toxic, removing the risk of damaging the liver and – perhaps more importantly – promises to put an end to hangovers.
So, how can we get our hands on this magical substance? The answer: with difficulty.
If this new chemical were to come to market – being sold in bars and on supermarket shelves – extensive human trials would first need to be conducted. Human trials of new drugs, particularly those that would be used recreationally, are extremely difficult to get approved. Funding is limited and there are huge ethical issues to be addressed.
However, there might be motivation to overcome these hurdles. The case of e-cigarettes shows that there is a large market for synthetic alternatives to common drugs, especially since they are seen as being less harmful to health overall.
The government already spends considerable sums of money trying to tackle alcohol misuse and in recent years has introduced stricter regulations to deter people from drinking excessively. Management of alcohol use by governmental bodies for public health is not a new concept. Scottish alcohol licensing laws date back to the 18th century restricting where, when and to whom alcohol can be sold.
However, it is unlikely that alcosynth will become part of the government’s strategy to combat alcohol abuse.
For one, it is likely that powerful groups will have an interest in maintaining the current system.
As our scientific abilities have rapidly progressed, the relatively new world of man-made chemicals has expanded. We have the potential to engineer substances to have the same positive effects as our favourite drugs, whilst dodging the negatives.
The regulatory policy landscape is going to have to be reshaped in order to cope with this new branch of innovation.
Image: Emanuel Feruzi