On Friday, the Deep End featured Damian Thompson’s brilliant piece for the Spectator on addiction. Focusing on pornography, he shows how technology is widening the exposure of our society to addictive activities.
The conventional wisdom is that addiction is a demand-led process, i.e. that addiction drives supply. But Thompson argues that history shows the opposite, i.e. that supply drives addiction:
- “…in the mid-18th century, parts of inner London suffered the world’s first mass epidemic of alcoholism. Its causes were no mystery: technology interacted with politics to poisonous effect. First someone invented the means to distil liquor from grain in industrial quantities. Then the British Parliament passed a series of Acts breaking the monopoly of gin distillers and allowing anyone to distil even rotten grain into spirits… The gin craze was eventually stamped out by legislation banning home distilling. Once cheap gin ceased to be available, addicted drinkers kicked the habit.”
The same pattern was seen in the heroin epidemic among American soldiers in Vietnam:
- “In the late 1960s, new techniques for manufacturing pure heroin coincided with the arrival of bored, scared and disorientated troops in the Mekong delta. By 1970, 15 per cent of soldiers were snorting or smoking heroin. The Nixon administration panicked at the thought of thousands of helpless junkies arriving back home after their tours of duty… In the event, though, the near impossibility of scoring high-grade heroin in Middle America meant that the vast majority of GI heroin users became almost instantly un-addicted.”
The heretical suggestion here is that people become addicted because they can, not because they must. The implication is that addiction can be resisted: specifically, at the level of the individual, by exercising personal responsibility; but also, at the level of society, by countering advances in the supply of addictive products.
Thompson is sceptical about the ability of governments to achieve the latter. But is he too pessimistic? Policy options such as Claire Perry’s case for requiring an opt-in system for access to online pornography show that we aren’t helpless in the face of new technology. If individuals have a choice on addicition, then so do societies.