Something happened in London in the early- to mid-18th century. It was called the Gin Craze. It represents a moment in time, perhaps a first moment, that illustrates how the wider social context plays a key role in substance use disorders. London’s reaction to the Gin Craze and those impacted is also an early picture of social attitudes toward addiction and the treatment of those afflicted.
While the historic record abounds with warnings about drunkenness, allowing us some certainty that our ancestors bumped up against a drunk relative or a hungover boss, these issues were likely spread apart. Remember, prior to the 18th century, most people lived in rural communities with low populations. Further, the primary substances available to most people were fermented beverages like beer and wine. Fermentation is a natural process (if you’ve ever left orange juice in the fridge too long, you’ve seen a first-hand example!), and these beverages had a fairly low alcohol content to begin with (much lower than what we can buy today). Further, they were usually diluted with water. Spirits or liquor, which required distilling technology and more human intervention, was not available to the masses; in London, French Brandy was the drink of the elite.
Things began changing in the late 16 and early 1700s. As industrialization increased, people moved from the rural villages to the cities. London had gone from being a large village to a full-blown city in a very short amount of time. It’s population was nearly 600,000 in 1700; it was a dirty, overpopulated, polluted mass of people living and working in cramped, unsanitary, and generally terrible conditions.
At the same time, political and religious issues with France led to new restrictions against the importation of French Brandy, a favorite among the upper classes. Economic leaders were eager for a local alternative, and while gin had been popular with some of London’s politicians, it was not widely available to the lower classes. The monopoly on gin distilling held by the London Guild of Distillers was broken in 1690, smaller distilleries began popping up, and the government began promoting the use of gin and other grain alcohol across London’s population. Easy, cheap, wide-spread access to that alcohol, and social discontent led to widespread overconsumption and drunkenness in the city, and eventually, moral and public outrage led to what amounted to a small, localized drug war. Political Acts related to taxing and licensing and social campaigns emerged.
There is no evidence of interest in the individuals impacted by their consumption outside the fact that drunkenness negatively impacted people’s ability to work and contribute to the industrial machine. Gin was declared the “principle cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people,” but higher taxes and license requirements seem to be the only real action taken toward ameliorating the problem. Gin may have been seen as the villain for the moment, but distilled alcohol was still seen as a generally positive, life-enriching food-stuff. Lack of will and moral fortitude among the poor were seen as the real problems.
In some ways, things haven’t changed much. Those old ideas still fuel the stigma related to alcohol abuse and addiction. Also, alcohol, while being recognized by the scientific, medical and psychological communities as a potentially dangerous substance is still accepted in our society and its use is encouraged in many circles. Finally, poverty and homelessness, among other societal problems, still exist.
We HAVE come a long way in shifting our approach when it comes to the treatment we give those who struggle with alcohol use disorders, but those changes were a long time coming. The historic popularity, economic power and legal status of alcohol contributed to maintaining the stigma against individuals and preventing the development of compassionate, effective treatment approaches. Today’s treatment approaches actually developed, as we’ll see later in this series, from national concern over and scientific research into opiate abuse and addiction. Fortunately, those changes have happened. The focus now is on helping the individual sufferer recover and heal. These days, addiction to all chemical substances is recognized as a chronic, progressive, and fatal disease by the medical and psychological communities and others involved in science and healthcare professions. Further, treatment addresses biological, psychological, social and even spiritual components in an individual’s life.