Welcome to my Blog


My name is Sally Marlow and I’m an Addiction Researcher at King’s College London.  I started this blog to communicate the science, psychology and culture underlying addiction problems, and to put right some of the misinformation out there about addiction and people with addiction problems.  All views expressed here are my own.

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We need to talk about Kevan

Misleading title.  We need to talk about Ken and what he said about Kevan.

Yesterday Ken Livingstone made a comment about Kevan Jones.  Kevan you may remember has spoken publicly about his depression and its effect on him.  Ken Livingstone said ” I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments”. 

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change (the mental health anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness), said it better than I ever could: “It’s as unacceptable to trade insults on the basis of someone’s mental health experiences as it would be on the basis of their race, gender or sexuality“.

Depressingly, even after Ken Livingstone belatedly apologised, he still insisted Kevan Jones started it, and tried to justify the way he lashed out.  Kevan Jones talked about Ken’s use of language last night on Channel 4, followed by one of the most unedifying interviews I’ve ever seen with Ken Livingstone himself.

So here we are in 2015, where some people still think it’s okay to use mental health experience as an insult.  It is heartening though that Ken Livingstone was called out on it repeatedly, and the more he tried to justify himself, the more criticism he received, and the more isolated he looked.


Open Access papers on alcohol and pregnancy, courtesy of Addiction Journal

A special virtual edition of Addiction Journal came out today, in which a collection of papers on alcohol and pregnancy have been gathered together.  The best news of all is that Addiciton have made the whole edition open access, and you can download the papers here:

Addiction Journal special issue: How to address alcohol consumption during pregnancy

Tearing up the rule book

Since recording a talk and panel discussion for The Festival of Free Thinking, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking myself.  The theme of this year’s festival was Tearing up the rule book.  To me, that’s not quite as subversive as it sounds.  Breaking rules is not just about disobedience, it’s also about stepping out of existing paradigms and starting from scratch. Sometimes you end up in the same place, sometimes you don’t.

The talk was about alcohol and hypocrisy, and you can find it here http://bbc.in/1M49yQ4

So what would happen if we did tear up the rule book when it comes to alcohol?  We might take the debate to the brain, or to the soul, rather than talk about livers and heart disease.  We might consider the paradoxes of alcohol – its fabulous power to make people feel better, alongside its presence in more than a third of suicides.  We might look anew at the debate about relative damage when compared to other drugs – bravely and objectively this time.  We might question why people drink, and try to get at that, alongside trying to patch things up for people where it goes wrong.  We might get scientists to look at what artists can tell us about addiction, and vice versa.

Something has to shift in the debate.  I’m not sure what that something is, but if it doesn’t shift we’ll just have more of the same.  During the recording for Radio 3, fellow panellist David Yelland asked the audience how many of them had someone close to them who had a problem with alcohol.  More than 50% of people put up their hands.  More of the same just won’t do any longer.


BBC Radio 3 Breathalysing Britain

Festival of free thinking

To Gateshead, for the Festival of Free Thinking, where I am recording a talk followed by a panel discussion for Radio 3.  The topic? Alcohol and hypocrisy. The other panel members, who are @davidyelland former Editor of the Sun, author and in recovery; @loveinaheadscarf author and Muslim women’s activist; and Barry Smith Professor of Philosophy.

I don’t want to give anything away before the debate, but I do know it’s going to be lively.  Everyone sees alcohol through their own prism, myself included.  I’m hoping to shake things up a bit, but maybe also look at some of my own positions anew.

Contentious issues

SSA logo black background

Today there is a session at the Society for the Study of Addiciton annual symposium called “Science & Politics – Synergy or Conflict?”

The importance of getting addiciton science to policy makers can not be stressed enough.  The session includes some really good examples of where government are listening to the science (Family Drug and Alcohol Courts, plain packaging [finally], and e-cigarettes) and where they are not (minimum unit pricing for alcohol).  Policy is rarely made just on the basis of evidence.  Public opinion, idealogical positioning and industry influence can all result in policies which are ineffective, even downright dangerous.  The challenge for all addiction scientists is how to get their findings listened to and acted upon.  Answers on a postcard, please.

As good a place as any

York general

The past few months have been punishing in terms of my work schedule, and I’ve been neglecting this blog.  So today I am doing the digital equivalent of dusting off the journal and filling the ink pen, to write on the way to York for the Society for the Study of Addiciton annual conference.  To the outside world it might seem a little strange that there are enough addiciton scientists to gather in a hotel in York for a couple of days, and to get excited about breakthroughs in treatments for heroin overdose, or about reports of cannabis being vaped.  But for addiction scientists, this conference is a place where magic happens….  and York at night in November is beautiful.  I’m particularly pleased this year because a good number of KCL PhD students are presenting their work – shout out to Hannah Rose, Lindsey Hines, Rob Calder, Rebecca McDonald, Jo Millward, and any other students I don’t yet know are there! The Society for Addiction was one of the funders of my own PhD, and their support for students over the last few years has been really impressive.

It’s not big and it’s not clever Tony

There’s something really tragic about Tony Abbott being filmed downing a beer in seven seconds – see the film, and accompanying news comment here BBC News: Tony Abbbott downs beer in seven seconds

It’s just wrong on so many levels, over and above any desire he might (or might not) have had to get drunk quickly. There was clearly some sort of peer pressure he succumbed to – not good in a Prime Minister.   Abbott has spoken publicly about the dangers of binge drinking….. hypocrisy is also not good in a Prime Minister. There was also clearly some sort of macho showing off – not good in any middle aged man, but particularly not good in a Prime Minister.

It’s complicated though, because as well as having a political stance on alcohol and binge drinking, Tony Abbott has a personal relationship with alcohol – all of us do. I have no idea what Abbott’s relationship with alcohol is, and would not want to speculate on it.  I would speculate however that his personal relationship with alcohol informs his drinking behaviour. It would have done on this occasion, just as it would have done if he’d been filmed sipping a glass of champagne at a wedding.

Here’s the thing.  We all have a relationship with alcohol, and how alcohol affects us informs how we think society should deal with alcohol.  The problem is that “we” includes politicians, who make decisions about alcohol and alcohol policies.  Perhaps this is why politicians so often ignore evidence about alcohol – their own opinions and beliefs trump the findings of medical, psychological, social and genetic scientists.  If you’re a politician, it’s a small step from your personal relationship with alcohol informing your drinking behaviour to allowing that relationship to inform policy decisions.

That’s why I think this footage of Tony Abbott isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong.

Alcohol and Suicide

This week saw a very moving and important examination of middle-aged male suicide by Simon Jack in BBC One Panorama: A Suicide in the Family.  There is also an article Simon Jack wrote to accompany the programme here BBC News: Fatal silence by Simon Jack.

Alcohol is implicated in a sizeable number of cases where people take their own lives, both at the time of death, and in the run up to it.

Post mortems reveal excess alcohol levels in about a quarter of those who commit suicide.  Alcohol lessens inhibitions, and for those contemplating suicide, it’s thought that in the moment, maybe alcohol removes some of the internal barriers to taking one’s own life.

It’s also known that about one in five people who have severe alcohol dependence take their own lives, (four in five of these are men).  In those who commit suicide who also are dependent on alcohol, other things have been found to be important:  divorce and separation; death of a loved one; legal problems; employment problems such as job loss; a history of trauma, abuse or violence; a history in the family of addiction problems especially with alcohol; and past attempts at suicide.

Rates of alcohol problems are also higher in groups where rates of suicide are higher, including veterans,and people with mental health problems.

Where am I going with this?  Just that this is yet another area where alcohol is involved, and maybe if we looked deeper at alcohol as well as all the other things that are involved, we might be able to make things a little better, not for everyone who is contemplating suicide, but for some.


How has it taken me 48 years to visit Belfast for the first time? Tomorrow I’m guest speaker at a seminar for the Substance Misuse and Child Welfare Special Interest Group at Queen’s University Belfast, and I’m looking forward to discussing my work with what I understand will be a truly multi-disciplinary audience.  SIG seminar 115)