Sam Leith Sam Leith

The modern economy is built on addiction

‘Late capitalism’ seeks to exploit addictive behaviour

Two stories, side-by-side in the Sunday paper I was looking at online. The first — ‘Strip Dame Dopesick of her title’ — was a report that the families of victims of opioid addiction were campaigning for Dame Theresa Sackler, whose family profited unimaginably from marketing addictive legal painkillers, to be stripped of her title. The second was the story of how the writer and TV presenter Richard Osman had spoken on BBC Radio Four of struggling with an addiction to crisps, chocolate and biscuits for four decades. He compared his relationship with food to an alcoholic’s with booze: ‘The addiction is identical.’

There’s a school of thought that will see no connection between these stories; that thinks it ridiculous to compare a luminary of light-entertainment struggling to resist scoffing a four-pack of Mars Bars with a jonesing OxyContin addict or a long-haul alky shuddering into withdrawal in a locked ward. There is, indeed, a school of thought that thinks there’s no such thing as addiction at all — that it’s simply a failure of willpower or backbone or self-control, a medicalised alibi for selfishness. And, sure, it’s true that addiction is a tricky concept to pin down — but you’d have to be proof against observable reality to think that it does not exist. Nor that being the host of Pointless can insulate you against it, or the seeming innocuousness of crisps and chocolate make them proof against becoming the objects of dependency and abuse.

To me, one of the most poignant passages in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience is his description of finding his father, mouth so crammed with sweeties he looked like a basketball. What, Martin asked, was going on? ‘It took him about ten minutes of disciplined mastication before he could reply. “Seems to calm me down,” he said, and started loading up again. He ate for comfort; the tranquillising effects of starch and glucose helped to allay fear.

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