Lessons from celebrity drug use

Over the past few months the media has featured a number of stories of high profile people with alcohol and other drug problems, from our own Zac Guilford to the early deaths of singers Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to recall the names of many other sportspeople, actors, singers and other celebrities whose alcohol or other drug use has become public in recent years, and many more besides going further back such as singers Hank Williams, Billy Holiday, and Johnny Cash, or footballer George Best.

Are celebrities more likely to develop problems with alcohol and other drugs? Yes and no. Having a lot of money is a risk factor, as one of the things that limits our consumption of any product is price. For alcohol there is what is called a “bimodal distribution” of heavy drinking depending on income: The heaviest drinking group is in fact the poorer segment of society, but risk doesn’t simply steadily reduce the more financially comfortable you are, instead there is another bump up in the graph for the wealthier segment of society. So it seems that when it comes to disposable income either an excess or, somewhat paradoxically, tight financial circumstances increase the temptation to indulge in heavy drinking.

Another risk factor for some of our celebrities is that certain occupations and industries involve greater exposure to alcohol and other drug use. The entertainment industry is certainly one of these. Professional sport in contrast is one where you might expect recreational alcohol and other drug use to be low as these substances are detrimental to a sportsperson’s performance (we won’t get in to performance enhancing drugs in this column). We know however that in New Zealand, as in many other countries, alcohol sponsorship is widespread and deeply enmeshed with many sporting codes. This sponsorship often includes free or discounted alcohol being provided to players. In such situations players have been found to drink more alcohol and experience higher rates of hazardous drinking. Our sporting heroes are disproportionately the very demographic – young males – where we find heavy drinking to be prevalent, to the point of almost being the norm, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this group finds the temptation of heavy drinking difficult to resist from time to time.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are an enormous numbers of celebrities, entertainers, sportspeople and public figures who don’t have these problems however. Reporting on that isn’t news and doesn’t sell papers and magazines. The media can inform us about what is happening in the world but sometimes its inherently selective nature can act to misinform us, as is the case here.

So what can we learn from these examples of alcohol and drug excesses? They do provide an example of the hazards of substance use, but at the same time there is a risk of glamorising use.The flip side to how the public could react to and learn from this is the experience of the public figure. There is arguably less respect for privacy shown to individuals with drug or alcohol than would be the case were they to suffer a different mental illness or physical illness. Is this fair? Part of this may be that we as a society tend to see heavy drinking/drug use is a personal choice for which a person must bear responsibility. While this is entirely valid in many cases, for some it is not so simple, with those experiencing addiction struggling to exert control over their substance using behaviour. Public shaming is a very blunt tool to try to bring about change for such individuals, and can easily end up being simply another cost of their drug problem.

Ultimately as a society we may be better off if we respect the privacy of others, even public figures. When use occurs to the extent of pushing itself into the public eye we should exercise caution in our tendency to rush to judgement.


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