Health and Family Proposals Alcohol and Vitamin B1 Part 1

About a practical proposal to put Vitamin B1 or thiamine into alcohol to help prevent Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.



Alcohol and Vitamin B1

I sit by the woman's bed.

"Mrs. Miller, where are you?"

Cold sober, she looks at me, then at my white coat, at the monitors, at the nurse passing by.

"I'm in a hotel."

"No, Mrs. Miller, you're in a hospital. How long have you been here?"

"Two hours."

She has been in the hospital for three weeks, ever since her family brought her to the emergency room in an alcoholic stupor. Though she has drunk no alcohol since checking in, she remains confused and cannot remember from minute to minute what is happening.

Five minutes later, I ask again, "Where are you, Mrs. Miller?"

She hesitates, puzzled. "I think I'm in a hotel."

Mrs. Miller (not her real name) has Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. When she is discharged, she will spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. She is 42 years old.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is partial destruction of the brain caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). It usually occurs in severe alcoholics who do not eat even minimally nutritious food. Even among alcoholics the disease is rare--but devastating. There is no treatment; the victims frequently die.

Yet this disease can easily be prevented--simply by adding thiamine to all liquor, wine, and beer.

Almost 40 years ago there was a call to supplement alcoholic beverages with vitamins because of the frequency of vitamin-deficiency diseases in alcoholics. But the proposal was killed by a curious Catch-22: By law, all food additives must be listed on the label. And by law nothing can be printed on the labels of alcoholic beverages which implies that drinking alcohol is healthy. Thus vitamins, which are good for you, cannot be listed as ingredients--and therefore cannot be added.

This antiquated ruling should be modified to exempt the listing of vitamins. Indeed, appropriate additions of thiamine to alcohol should be federally mandated since alcohol is controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Since the public pays for the care of many alcoholics suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and other ailments, adding thiamine to alcohol--once the technical problems of doing so are resolved--would save millions of dollars. For every dollar's worth of thiamine added to alcoholic beverages, the public would save about $7 in nursing home costs--not a bad return in this era of cost-consciousness.

Public interest in the proposal has grown, yet the alcoholic beverage industry has remained cool to the idea of a thiamine additive. The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. takes the position that preventing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome would give "false encouragement" to alcoholics--a curious statement from an industry that spends millions each year to encourage drinking.

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