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Addiction, Cancer, In the News

The wrong reason to lionize Christopher Hitchens

At a party last year I chanced to turn my head and see a famous person, about whom two things immediately impressed me: One, he was downing glasses of whisky at an alarming rate, and two, he looked pale and sickly. The man was Christopher Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer this past week at the age of 62.

As tributes to Hitchens have poured in from around the world, many people who knew him have appropriately lauded his astonishing erudition and stylish writing. But a disturbing number have either made light of or even romanticized his prodigious consumption of alcohol. This is at best foolish and at worst dangerous.

The contribution of heavy alcohol consumption to automobile accidents, family violence, liver cirrhosis and a host of other problems has been well-known for decades. In more recent years, increasing evidence has implicated alcohol consumption in the genesis of many cancers (e.g., of the oral cavity, larynx and pharynx). Most cases of esophageal cancer, which ended Hitchens’s life as well as that of his alcoholic father, are attributable to heavy, regular alcohol consumption. When heavy alcohol consumption is combined with smoking, the risks of cancer rise even further.

Whether they intend it or not, in their public statements some people who clearly cared about Hitchens have trivialized the behavior that took their friend from them years before his time. Hitchens himself was both more serious and honest, when he said in one of his last television interviews “to anyone watching, if you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails you may be well advised to do so.”

Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

6 Responses to “ The wrong reason to lionize Christopher Hitchens ”

  1. Edu8orDie Says:

    Perhaps truer words were never said. That said, your time writing them was surely wasted. People don’t lionize Christopher Hitchens because of his tobacco and booze. They do so in spite of them.

  2. Ian Coleman Says:

    Making light of Mr. Hitchens’s alcoholism is absurd. It is esecially, egregiously fooish to suggest (as Mr. Hitchens himself came close to doing) that drinking made him a better writer. I have yet to meet the human being whose personality or thought processes were improved by drinking alcohol.

    Incidentally, Hunter Thompson, who was probably even more alcoholic than Christopher Hitchens, got the same blithely amused acceptance of his alcoholism in the many tributes published to him at the time of his death. This sort of thing is just nuts.

  3. Joe Mickey Says:

    The problem for Mr. Hitchens is that he spent a large amount of his talent moralizing other peoples actions and beliefs when he himself as stated here was often less than moral in his own life.

  4. john craske Says:

    I don’t really care if Hitchens was alcoholic or not. He probably was, but does that matter? His prodigious work output shows he was capable of delivering, even if he was half-pissed a lot of the time. Maybe he would have been even better a writer and orator had he always been stone-cold sober. But he enjoyed his booze and cigs. As he said, burning the candle at both ends “gave a lovely light”.

  5. Param Says:

    Well, Hitchens always said that it ( alcohol ) is a wonderful servant, but a cruel master. I wonder who decides when the ethanol has left servitude and assumed mastery! It can truly make people seem less boring. It might just add that buzz a dull and dreary evening requires. I have felt that on countless occasions. But yes, smoking : definitely a No-No.

    It is, after all, a person’s choice. We are born accursed,for we are going to die no-matter how much we exercise, how well we eat, how abstemious we are. Only oblivion awaits us. And if that is not enough, life itself can be a mundane affair. If someone wants to trade ten-twenty-thirty years of their life, that the remainder may be livelier and , in their opinion, more enjoyable, who are we to question them?

  6. Ian Coleman Says:

    I don’t drink. I acquired my lifelong nondrinking habit from my parents, who taught me that drinking was a sin, and that God forbade it. Seriously, I thought that if I drank God would count me a sinner. Imagine how much Mr. Hitchens would have loathed a discussion on the subject of drinking with me when I was twenty.

    But now I’m 62, which is the age Mr. Hitchens was when he ceased to be rude, hostile and drunk, due to cessation of breathing. I got more fun out of Hitchens’s death than he got out of killing himself. If I die this year because of accumulated hatred of Chrisopher Hitchens, that will have been worth it to me.


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