If you could get tipsy without worrying about a potential hangover or liver damage, would you? That’s the very real question that people across the globe may be facing in the next five years as scientists work to invent a synthetic alcohol alternative to launch onto the market. But what would this “less bad” alcohol-like product mean for those who struggle with alcohol use disorder?
Scientist David Nutt published a paper in 2010 that showed alcohol is “more harmful than heroin or crack.” However, that hasn’t stopped him from working on a molecule, referred to as “alcosynth,” that will supposedly provide the user with a tipsy feeling but with no adverse effects. This month, the Guardian reported that he may be very close to bringing this allegedly safe synthetic alcohol substitute to the masses with a product called Alcarelle.
Even if Nutt can create an alcohol alternative, should he?
“The industry knows alcohol is a toxic substance,” Nutt told the Guardian. “If it were discovered today, it would be illegal as a foodstuff. The safe limit of alcohol, if you apply food standards criteria, would be one glass of wine a year.”
Nutt is right about the dangers of alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use results in 88,000 deaths per year in the US; worldwide, 3 million people die from alcohol, according to the World Health Organization. But attempting to make an alcohol alternative can be problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it will be many years before we can truly know the health effects of alcosynth.
However, Nutt and his business partner, David Orren, are moving ahead with a five-year plan that will have the UK (where they’re based) regulate Alcarelle as a food additive or ingredient. Their ultimate goal is to whitelabel their product and sell it to the beverage industry to adapt it on their own. Nutt says that “there will obviously be testing to check the molecule is safe” but, when something is regulated as a food (versus a drug), there won’t be extensive clinical trials to test whether this “food” is actually safe.
“It can be dangerous to ingest a product before it has been tested rigorously, even if it has already become available.”
Sure, Alcarelle doesn’t give you a hangover or cause liver issues (according to Nutt), but there has so far been no long-term discussion about the potential effects of this product and their implications.
And it doesn’t really seem that Nutt is overly concerned with spending years and years on trials since he has neither mentioned how exactly his alcosynth is made, nor spoken about any of the potential side effects. He says it’s a great product. But according to Scott Edwards, an assistant professor of physiology at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center of Excellence, that’s simply not the whole picture.
Speaking to LiveWire, Edwards explained what he feels is the obvious problem (and I agree): It can be dangerous to ingest a product before it has been tested rigorously, even if it has already become available. Think of the danger of e-cigarettes, which is only now slowly starting to come into public view. According to Edwards, people can buy them, but the health effects on our lungs and oral cavity are not yet completely understood. The same will likely happen with alcosynth if Nutt continues to push through with his rapid plan.
“One of the most dangerous aspects of any ingested substance — from fashionable street drugs to e-cigarettes — is not knowing exactly what chemicals are contained in the final formulation,” Edwards told LiveScience.
Beyond the issue of the unknown long-term side-effects of Alcarelle and the push to let Big Alcohol have access to create new tipsy drinks, Nutt and his team do not seem to be considering the potential for alcosynth to be just as, if not more, addictive as alcohol. After all, who wouldn’t want a diet soda-like drink that makes them feel more relaxed in social settings?
The truth behind alcosynth is that it is a derivative of benzodiazepine, a controversial substance that is used to aid in alcohol withdrawal, which “can actually cause increased drinking, like to whet the appetite of someone who is severely dependent,” according to George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
I wouldn’t be surprised if alcosynth actually increased problematic drinking behavior.
When asked if the promise of a hangover-free alcohol substitute could increase binge drinking and risky drinking behavior, however, Koob told the Daily Beast that it was definitely possible.
Even worse, anyone who engages in problematic drinking (such as “gray area” drinking) might end up continuing to worsen their behavior since they will perceive less of a danger with alcosynth because it leaves you tipsy and not drunk.
“If alcosynth impacts subjective intoxication [i.e., the feeling of being drunk] without reducing cognitive impairment, it could leave users quite vulnerable to intoxicated risk-taking,” Dr. William R. Corbin, professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and expert on alcohol misuse and related risk behaviors, told the Daily Beast.
There is no way to know, and Nutt has certainly not mentioned how alcosynth will impact issues such as drinking and driving. People already tend to think that they’re less drunk than they are, leading to risky behavior, and if you can remain feeling tipsy, what will that do to your perception of your own impairment? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
We also don’t and likely won’t know how alcosynth interacts and mixes with medications.
Beyond all of the potential risks of alcosynth, the biggest question of “hangover-free alcohol,” or synthetic alcohol alternative as is the case here, remains: What is happening in the world that people want to be intoxicated and feel the need to escape their everyday lives?
If Alcarelle becomes a reality, addiction levels and substance use disorder could rise. Sure, people won’t be able to get drunk or get cancer (according to Nutt, at least), but is a nation full of perpetually tipsy people really what we want?
The development of an alcohol substitute doesn’t address the underlying mental health issues that may be leading millions of people to seek a drink in the first place. As more of us take a step away from Big Alcohol, alcosynth feels like a giant step toward it.
What we need isn’t to get tipsy without the risk of a hangover. What we really need, as a society, is better support so that our people don’t need the numbing effects of intoxication to get through their lives.