Trainspotting “more powerful” in drugs fight than expert health warnings

Former chief medical officer Sir Kenneth Calman has said that literature such as Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel, Trainspotting, along with the other arts, has the power to make the public think about health issues.

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Sir Kenneth, who has served as chief medical officer in Scotland and England, said that Welsh’s novel about heroin addiction served as an example of a story that had captured the public awareness to change medical understanding.

Sir Kenneth said that the arts can “change things” by making people think differently about health issues. He suggested that certain stories could make more of a deeper impact on people than speeches from the most learned of doctors.

He said: “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. These ideas which poets and writers have can make you think quite differently.”

Sir Kenneth has compiled a book about the history of literature in relation to public health.

Trainspotting was adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor and directed by Danny Boyle in 1996. It is set in Edinburgh and tells the gritty and harrowing story of a group of heroin addicts. 

Research presented by the Home Office last month revealed that crime rates are declining – partly due to a fall in the number of heroin addicts. Statistics from the British Crime Survey showed that reported drug use (heroin and crack cocaine) by adults in England and Wales decreased from 6.7 per cent in 1996 to 5.2 per cent in 2011-2012.  

Sir Kenneth also said that 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.”