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Will it be society’s or Government’s ruin?

Lin-Nam Wang visits an exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians

Last month, we learnt, following an investigation published in the BMJ, of some of the machinations behind the Government’s U-turn in July 2013 on minimum unit pricing for alcohol in England and Wales. To recap, when the policy, supported by a number of organisations, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, was shelved, the reason given was that there was not “enough concrete evidence” that it would reduce harms. But it emerged that the evidence had been available and meetings between ministers and alcohol industry were revealed.

Then and now

The whole affair was labelled as “deplorable” and the Government was accused of “dancing to the tune of the drinks industry” by a group of healthcare professionals led by Sir Ian Gilmore, who is special adviser on alcohol at the Royal College of Physicians.

That an exhibition on alcohol (“This bewitching poison”), has just opened at the royal college is, therefore, well timed. It shows that RCP members were campaigning against alcohol as early as 1725, when they petitioned the House of Commons on “the fatal effects …  of distilled spiritous liquors upon great numbers of both sexes, rendering them diseased, not fit for business, poor, a burthen to themselves and neighbours, and too often the cause of weak, feeble and distempered children”.

Visitors to the exhibition can see the only surviving contemporary copy of the petition, the original having been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1834. They will also see alcohol described almost 300 years ago as a “great and growing evil”. At that time, gin — known as “mother’s ruin” — was blamed for drunkeness, crime and poverty, as illustrated in Hogarth’s 1751 engraving “Gin Lane”, which is on display, and which was borrowed by political satirist Martin Rowson in 2012 (above). Back in the 18th century, however, the campaign was successful, with parliament passing an act to increase tax, putting most gin sellers out of business. What happens in our time remains to be seen.

Hogarth’s renowned print was intended to be shown alongside “Beer Street”, which promoted drinking beer over gin, and this is also on display along with works from other artists as well as items lent from the RPS Museum collection, demonstrating the use of alcohol in medicine.

Alcohol is such an enigma in our society, being synonymous with both celebration and destitution. This is an interesting little exhibition I would commend particularly to pharmacists expected to play a part in tackling alcohol misuse. It will provoke thought on how we deal with alcohol in our society today and why this is important.


“This bewitching poison” runs until 27 June 2014 at the Royal College of Physicians in London. Admission is free. There are also lectures, curator talks and walking tours. More information can be found at And if you have time, pop downstairs to see the royal college’s impressive collection of medicines spoons.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.11133565

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Supplementary images

  • Priority Lane by Martin Rowson © Martin Rowson

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