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Drug Addiction in Britain

By: David Vetter - Updated: 30 Sep 2010 | comments*Discuss
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The subject of addiction receives a great deal of attention from the British media. Stories about drug abuse and gambling addiction are the most popular themes, forming the basis for a number of national “moral panics”.

But the true nature of addiction in Britain is far more complex than the tabloids would suggest. Indeed, most people have some type of habitual behaviour, whether it be relatively benign or harmful, and we all approach our addictions in different ways.

Positive Trends

In Britain, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) keeps track of the proportion of people who indulge in what we regard as the most harmful addictions. In 2008, the ONS reported that around 22 percent of British people were addicted to cigarettes: a reduction of more than five percentage points in eight years. In the same year, the ONS found that heavy drinkers – those people who drank more than the recommended amount of alcohol per week – had also fallen, to 23 percent of men, and 12 percent of women.

A 2007 study by the Gambling Commission also revealed that “problem gambling” - those with addictions to gambling – had also fallen. Whilst the Commission had been expecting a rise in gambling addictions, it found that only 0.6 percent of people in Britain could be listed as “problem gamblers” who were unable to stop betting.

With regard to illegal drugs, in 2007 the NHS treated 22,000 people for cannabis addiction. This represents a huge increase in cannabis addiction over the last ten years. The total number of addicts to class A drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, stands at around 280,000.

But again, with illegal drugs the general trends are encouraging. A 2006 study found that 10.5 percent of adults had tried an illicit substance within the past year. This represented a reduction of more than 12 percent in ten years. Whilst the abuse of some drugs has increased, the general level of drug use has decreased.

Everyday Addictions

A recent 2009 survey of 3,000 people in Britain gave some hints about how we view addiction. The survey, exclusively of people under the age of 30, asked respondents to name their greatest addiction. The top ten responses were:

1: Coffee
2. Chocolate
3. Facebook
4. Beauty products
5. Checking bank statements
6. Junk food
7. Celebrity gossip and reality TV
8. Exercise
9. Retail therapy
10. Blackberry/iPhone

The fact that most of the items listed appear quite trivial does call into question the seriousness of the study. But the nature of the answers raises some interesting questions. Do people take their own addictions seriously? Are people in denial, and simply denying more serious difficulties with, say, alcohol and tobacco? Can checking bank statements really be considered an addiction?

The Silver Lining

It would appear that, whilst there is an ever-pervasive atmosphere of worry regarding the nation's addictions, we're actually doing rather better than the tabloids would have us believe. Once you step away from the headlines, it becomes clear that the traditional demons of drugs, drink and gambling are actually destroying fewer lives now than they were ten years ago.

There is little doubt that an addiction to junk food, chocolate and coffee can lead to consequences for one's health, but if logging into Facebook is truly the biggest problem in the lives of a large proportion of Britons, then it would be tempting to say that, as a nation, we're doing rather well.

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