Friday, 18 May, 2001

Book Review: Forces of Habit

Book of the week (last 2 weeks, I guess--I've had little time for serious reading) is Forces of Habit, Drugs and the Making of the Modern World by David T. Courtwright.  In it, the author gives a short history of psychoactive substances in society, and offers explanations of why some (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine) became largely accepted and others (marijuana, cocaine, and opiates) have become controlled substances.  This book is especially interesting in light of what I learned from reading Guns, Germs, and Steel (see my March 29 entry).

I found the chapters on governments' drug addictions especially enlightening.  Governments have a very difficult time with drugs.  People like psychoactive substances (our national addictions to caffeine and sugar, for example), and get very upset when their access to these drugs is restricted.  Governments also obtain considerable income from licit drug trade.  Balancing the social damage (health costs and lost productivity) due to drugs with citizens' happiness and government revenue obtained from licit drug trade is a very tricky thing; witness our own experiment with Prohibition in the 1920's, Russia's attempt to curtail the vodka industry in the 1980's, and China's attempt to stop the opium trade in the 1920's.

My only complaint with the book (and it's relatively minor) is that the author is pretty heavy handed in criticizing the tobacco industry.  I'll grant that the tobacco industry is hardly blameless (there are plenty of well-supported anecdotes in the book), but their tactics are no less deplorable than those of alcohol, cocaine, or opium industries both past and present.  I would have preferred a more even handed approach--more exposure of all the industries.