Trainspotting was better than health warnings in fight against drugs

Film and novel written by Irvine Welsh sent a powerful message about the harm drugs can do, according to former chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman

Trainspotting was more powerful in fight against drugs than warnings from health experts about them, former chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman has said.

Sir Kenneth, who has served as chief medical officer in Scotland and England, said Irvine Welsh’s novel was one example of a story that had captured the public consciousness to change medical understanding.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, he said the arts, including literature, can “change things”, making members of the public think differently about health issues

Suggesting their impact could be even greater than speeches from most learned professors, he has now compiled a book detailing the history of literature in relation to public health.

When asked about the importance of stories to people’s lives and public health, Sir Kenneth said: “I think that’s right – it’s stories that can change health.

“If you were to read Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, and looked at what it says about drugs and HIV and things, that is much more powerful that the average professor standing up talking about it.

“Stories are contagious, stories can change things.

“Whether it’s in the medium of social media or books. These ideas which poets and writers have can make you think quite differently.”

Trainspotting, the novel by Welsh, was published in 1993 and was adapted into a 1996 film starring Ewan McGregor and directed by Danny Boyle.

It tells the story of heroin addicts in Edinburgh and became a cult classic, but was initially accused by some of glamorising drug use.

Last month, research by the Home Office found crime rates are declining due in part to a decreasing number of heroin addicts, with statistics showing between one quarter and one third of the fall in crime since 1995 was due to a drop-off in heroin and crack cocaine use.

Statistics from the British Crime Survey found the proportion of adults aged 16 to 59 years in England and Wales reporting drug use decreased from 6.7 per cent in 1996 to 5.2 per cent in 2011-2012

However, the fight against Class A drugs is far from over. The National Records of Scotland show that while there has been a drop in the number of drug related deaths since a peak in 2011, the number of deaths has risen from 244 in 1996 to 526 last year.

Sir Kenneth, who is now the chancellor the University of Glasgow as well as chairman of the National Cancer Research Institute, added: “Literature is one part of it – creative writing for example – but the wider arts are just as important, whether it’s painting or visual arts or whatever.

“These two things together can make it better.”

When asked about the danger of novels also spreading misinformation, he conceded it was important to balance fiction with scientific research.

“We must have the science; without science we wouldn’t have been able to affect the huge changes in medical treatment,” he said. “But you need the humanity as well.

“It’s entirely possible to spread the wrong idea as well as the right idea.

“I suppose someone could read Trainspotting and think ‘that sounds great’.

“So part of it is to try and assess the impact of the humanities. In principle, it’s entirely right to think about that [the problem of inaccuracy].”


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