Death by misadventure was the verdict at the inquest of Amy Winehouse, who died in July. On the afternoon of July 23, the day Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27, a friend rang me with the sad news, saying: “Shows just how deadly heroin is, doesn’t it?” I replied that heroin certainly can be dangerous but that far, far more people kill themselves with booze, with nothing added, than die of taking heroin.
Either they die of a slow disease, like cirrhosis of the liver, or the booze can kill them there and then by poisoning them, depressing their central nervous system until everything stops.
Why did it have to be so called illegal drugs that killed her?
As an example of acute alcohol poisoning, I mentioned (in a blog I wrote that day) the sudden death of Dylan Thomas: his post mortem pointed to “insult to the brain”, caused by alcohol. Supposedly, Thomas had drunk 18 straight whiskies, which is about 36 single measures of whisky in British terms.
Winehouse’s friends had spoken of her having been so drunk, earlier that week in July, that she couldn’t stand. Later her boyfriend, Reg Traviss, and members of her family made it clear she had not taken illicit drugs for some time.
Today the coroner has spoken: the poor singer’s blood contained 416mg of alcohol per decilitre*. “The unintended consequences of such potentially fatal levels,” said the coroner, “was her sudden and unexpected death.”
Professor Suhail Baithun, a Home Office pathologist, said people start losing their faculties at 200mg of alcohol per decilitre, and “when you have levels of 350mg, it is associated with fatalities”.
Why do we always assume illicit drugs are responsible in these sudden deaths? Sometimes they are, obviously. But I also think we blame drugs because they’re strange and frightening, and we don’t like to think of booze like that, we don’t like to think of it as deadly stuff.
Booze is supposed to be our friend, it’s part of our culture, it helps us to relax. Many of us couldn’t cope with life’s daily challenges without it. It is, in the words of those bossy health education campaigns of old, “our favourite drug”.
We prefer not to think about what it can be — a strong poison that kills in overdose.
*This has been expressed in most news reports as five times the drink-drive limit. In Britain the drink-driving limit is normally given in milligrams per 100 millilitres (one deciliter) of blood, or, most commonly, in micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath. The drink-driving limit is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. It’s certainly a lot of alcohol.