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.