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The media hype about captagon and its side-effects

by Meryem Grabski @MeryemGrabski

imageTowards the end of last year headlines emerged about captagon, a psychoactive drug “used by the ‘Islamic State’ to create brainwashed, psychotic killing machines”, able to “stay awake days at a time“.  The interest in captagon reached a peak when it was suggested that the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Paris last November may have been under the influence of the drug, a claim that has turned out to be most likely untrue. However, it is not surprising that the potential involvement of a drug in the activities of the “Islamic State” (IS) has been the subject of such media interest, ranging from headlines  about “superhuman soldiers” and “jihad junkies”, to suggestions that captagon is one of the main reasons that the war in Syria is still ongoing. In my research, I spend most of my time trying to find methods that might improve treatments for drug dependence, so I had two immediate reactions to these headlines: curiosity about what this substance really was, and irritation at the superficial, irresponsible way the issue was covered. Motivated by this I would like to look at: a) what information on this drug is actually substantiated, and b) how the sensationalist coverage of drugs has serious negative consequences for people suffering from addictions.

DrugOverdoseThe drug the media are calling captagon has been associated with brand named “captagon”: the psychostimulant fenethylline. However, there is probably a substantial difference between the original formulation and the drug traded as captagon in the Middle East today. Fenethylline was developed in the 1960s and mainly used for the treatment of children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In 1986 it was listed by the WHO for international scheduling under the Convention of Psychotropic Substances and banned by most countries. Illegal trade of counterfeit captagon rose afterwards in some Eastern European countries and the Middle East, in particular the Gulf States. However, analyses of pills to be sold as captagon that were seized in Saudia Arabia, Jordan and Serbia have indicated that the amount of genuine fenethylline has decreased over the years, with the most recent studies finding no evidence that fenethylline was present at all. The main active ingredients that were found included amphetamine and caffeine.

The source that most recent media articles on captagon have cited is the BBC Arabic documentary “Syria’s war drug”, which includes interviews with users from Lebanon and Kuwait, and alleged former Syrian fighters. It also touches on the captagon manufacturing and trading processes in Lebanon, as well as its potential connection to groups involved in the Syrian conflict. Importantly, the film makes no claims at any point that this drug is directly related to IS, a fact which has either been ignored or misrepresented in much of the subsequent media coverage.

Apart from the fact that the reporting on captagon has been superficial at best, there is also the issue that sensationalist headlines usually obscure the complexity that underlies any drug story. Oversimplification has been identified as a major problem when it comes to disseminating information on drugs to the public. The media plays a key role in shaping public opinion on drugs, which in turn influences public and criminal justice policy. Direct consequences include the increased use of a certain drug due to its omnipresence in the media, as observed during the discussion of the now illegal substance mephedrone, or the misplacement of governmental resources to overcome perceived, yet unconfirmed, drug threats, as was the case when headlines emerged in the USA linking the use of “bath salts” to extreme violence.

a-stack-of-newspapersBut it is the more long-term, indirect consequences of a sensationalist media discourse that are probably the more harmful ones. The reinforcement of the notion that illegal drugs are one of the main causes and perpetuators of crime is one of them. The recent portrayal of captagon too, supports the idea that drugs are mostly consumed by criminals. The focus was not on how increased use of a drug might harm the civil population in Syria. Instead, news stories attempted to link the drug with IS, the most criminal, abhorrent organization involved in the conflict, despite no good evidence for such a connection. Readers are left with simply a vague association between illegal drugs and terrorism. The stigmatization of people addicted to drugs, increased unfounded public fear of drug-related crimes, and less room for discussions on how we can help prevent and cure addiction are just some of the consequences of inadequate media coverage.

Of course, it is not only sensationalist headlines that lead to these unhelpful consequences, and there are many ways of counteracting them. The provision of information, in as unbiased a way as possible, is one of them. This is where science, and scientists, can play an important role. As well as disseminating their research to the scientific community and publishing in scientific journals, scientists should consider it part of their job to inform and discuss their research publicly. Not only does it help to counter unfounded media stories and inform public opinion – the public engagement opportunities I have had during my PhD so far have been fun and inspiring.

A green man walked into a bar to the future…

By Jasmine Khouja (@Jasmine_Khouja), with contributions from Olivia Maynard, Suzi Gage, Gibran Hemani and David Troy

Alcohol and cigarettes may not seem out of place at a music festival; discussing the science behind alcohol, cigarettes and genetics may. This August, my colleagues and I from the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU) and Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (TARG) at the University of Bristol took our research to the Green Man Festival 2015 ( which, though primarily a music festival, hosts the Einstein’s Garden where festival-goers can play, learn and converse about science. ‘Future’ was the theme so we took our ‘Bar to the Future’ to show where our research may lead.


Since the smoking ban, bars have been smoke-free but the growing popularity of e-cigarettes has sparked debate about their use indoors. Using an attention-grabbing demonstration (pictured right), we asked the public’s opinions on smoking and vaping. Our demonstration, in which cigarettes and e-cigarettes were smoked/vaped into the two separate glass tubes by means of a battery powered bed pump, shows a brown residue (tar) in the conventional cigarette tube where the e-cigarette tube is clear. Tar is not present in e-cigarettes making them, in one way, less harmful than traditional cigarettes.


bartothefutureMembers of the public shared their mixed opinions with us (pictured right) ranging from extremely positive to extremely negative.  Many seemed concerned about the long term health effects of using e-cigarettes. Scientists are unsure of the long term effects of e-cigarette use because they have not existed long enough for these effects to be assessed and the rapidly changing devices make it hard for scientists to keep up. The wide spectrum of beliefs could reflect the inconsistency of information the public receive from the media; news sources reported Public Health England’s recent suggestion that e-cigarettes are 95% safer than conventional cigarettes and may eventually be prescribed on the NHS ( which received backlash in a Lancet Journal editorial which also received media coverage ( Opinion on conventional cigarettes however, was less divided. The public are clearly aware of the dangers despite many choosing to continue smoking. Opinions on vaping indoors showed a similar pattern to the views on e-cigarettes harm; worries over normalising smoking again and second hand vape were among the concerns despite no evidence suggesting inhaling second hand vape is dangerous. The exhaled vapour usually contains traces of nicotine and flavouring as well as an FDA approved substance used in most fog machines (propylene glycol). Though positive about the use of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid as they contain fewer and lower doses of toxicants, they do still contain toxicants so we would not describe them as safe for non-smokers but they are safer than conventional smoking.


The children of Green Man got involved by designing cigarette packaging warning labels. Here are a few of the designs placed on our giant cigarette packet which could show the future of cigarette health warnings.


Calorie information is now placed on food and soft drinks bought at supermarkets but rarely placed on the packaging of alcoholic drinks. Calls from public health officials and policy makers could see calorie content on labelling made mandatory. By asking the public to guess how many calories were in lager, whiskey, alcopops and wine it became apparent that the public have limited knowledge when it comes to the calorific content of alcohol. This is unsurprising as calorie content varies across brands, strength and size of alcoholic drink. Without the information being provided, it is difficult to know how many calories are in your drink (some information can be found on the drink aware website,

Straight glasses may be used more in bars rather than curved glasses in the future. To demonstrate the effect of this we asked festival-goers to half fill a curved and a straight glass with water. The majority of festival-goers struggled to find the half-way point on the curved glass yet found it relatively easily on the straight glass. This finding has been shown in the lab too; people perceive the half-way point to be lower than it is on a curved glass and consume a half pint 4 minutes faster in a curved glass than from a straight glass and drink 1 minute slower from glasses marked with volume information displaying where the ½, ¼ and ¾ points are. By simply adding volume information to glasses and using straight instead of curved glasses the public may reduce their drinking speed meaning they drink less over the course of their drinking session.


snakesWe also shared some future research which involves the Rotating snakes illusion (pictured right). When viewing this illusion the motion perception areas in the brain are activated meaning the viewer perceives the snakes as rotating. We hypothesised that if festival-goers had consumed alcohol they would see less or no rotation due to their motion perception being impaired. Though we did not observe this, there was a lot of variation in quickly the public saw the snakes rotate even if they hadn’t consumed any alcohol. This information will be useful when designing our future lab studies so that each participant is tested with and without having consumed alcohol rather than comparing alcohol consumers to non-alcohol consumers.


A popular part of our stall was the genetics of table football. This was no ordinary game of table football, each team was made up of a genetics and an environmental player to demonstrate how our genes and environment affect the person we are in the future. The genetics players rolled a dice to decide their genetic predispositions (e.g. to alcohol dependence) which represented the element of chance in who we are. This related to an advantage or disadvantage in the game (e.g. holding a cup while playing). The environment player then picked a card (representing the element of choice in our environment) giving the player an advantage or disadvantage. The players then battled it out. The team who scored the first goal got to pick a controlled environment card; they could either lose one of their disadvantages (e.g. put the cup down) or choose to disadvantage the other team before continuing play. The game sparked discussions on how neither your genes or environment solely determine who you are, it is a team effort.

Festival-goers also tried PTC (Phenylthiocarbamide), which has a rare property; 70% of people experience a bitter taste but 30% of people taste virtually nothing when they try this chemical due to their genetics. After asking festival-goers to lick a PTC strip they were asked if they liked four bitter foods. We expected to find that those who can taste PTC are more sensitive to bitter tastes and therefore like bitter tasting foods less than those who cannot taste PTC. Information like this could be used in the future to help people decide what alcoholic drinks may taste better to them. We found that PTC tasters were as likely to like bitter tasting foods as those who can’t taste PTC.

stallThe punch line

After three days of games and discussions with the public, our gazebo proved no match for the Welsh weather and was left broken beyond repair after heavy rainfall. We were forced to shut down the stall a day early but for those who missed out, we hope to see you next year!


Goggle-Eyed @Bristol

By Eleanor Kennedey @Nelllor_

Since beginning my PhD with TARG a few months ago I have been repeatedly presented with pleasant surprises. My new colleagues have been more than welcoming; the research in the group is diverse and interesting and, of course, the city of Bristol itself is a joy to live in. Given that the University is at the heart of the city, it’s not hard to get involved with public events as a member of the University of Bristol. One excellent location for this type of involvement is the @tBristol Science Centre – an interactive exhibition centre that hosts events for all the family. Last week there was a special event for adults called Luck & Love, aptly named because it took place on the eve of Valentine’s Day and on ‘unlucky’ Friday the 13th. Our group was demonstrating the effect that alcohol has on perceiving attractiveness, or the ‘Beer Goggles Effect’ as it is more commonlyknown. Being an enthusiastic science-type I jumped at the chance to help with the TARG stall at the eventand even ended up on TV!

Elenaor talking to the BBC

The day before the event, someone in the team asked if I would speak to the BBC on the night; I immediately responded with a gleeful “Yes!” and afterwards asked what I had just agreed to do.  Talking on live television about research that is not even my own is what I had agreed to… Suddenly my impulsive answer seemed a bit unwise; still, as the saying goes, “no risk no fun”, so I kept my promise. On the evening, after helping with stall preparations (complete with colourful lights and paper love-heart décor) I met the man from BBC Points West to go over what I might say. It was just one answer to one question: “What is the science behind the “Beer Goggles” effect?” Luckily I managed to answer on live TV without passing out or giving in to the temptation to shout “Hi Mum!” With novelty beer-goggle sunglasses atop my head I explained to the BBC that facial symmetry has been identified as a key underlying feature of what people consider to be attractive. The beer goggles effect may come about, at least partly, because alcohol inhibits the ability to detect facial symmetry so more asymmetric faces will appear more attractive than without alcohol.

TARG stall @Bristol

TARG stall @Bristol

 On the evening, we set up a stall with pictures of 4 male and 4 female faces and a rating scale ranging from ‘Not my Type’ to ‘It Must be Love’. Attendees of the event were asked to rate each face by dropping counters into the rating-scale tubes. Participants who had up to 1 alcoholic drink were given white counters, while red counters were given to those who had 2 or more drinks. A study carried out in our lab found higher ratings of facial stimuli of same-sex and opposite-sex faces in a group of social drinkers who had consumed an alcoholic drink compared to those who had consumed a placebo drink. The study was also carried out in a few pubs around Bristol, with patrons rating same-sex and opposite-sex faces as well as landscapes. Interestingly, compared to participants who had not had an alcoholic drink, those who had consumed alcohol rated opposite-sex faces as more attractive, while there was no difference between groups for same-sex and landscape stimuli. That night we expected more red counters (for 2 or more drinks) at the higher end of the scale.

This was my first event like this, and one thing I quickly learned was that taking my time chatting to people was best. In previous research assistant roles there has generally been a limited amount of time to carry out the experiment so once the information sheet was understood, the focus was on completing the tasks at hand rather than chatting with participants about the research. For me, the joy of the event was being able to take my time in chatting to people about our research and the theories behind the beer goggles effect, rather than concentrating primarily on collecting data. It was great to see how amused people were by the concept and they seemed to have fun rating some strangers’ faces.

Overall the night was really enjoyable; chatting to people about the research carried out by our group and hearing their opinions on it was great. The @Bristol team put on an excellent event, I got the opportunity to try out a few other things going on, such as dissecting a pig’s heart and testing my tolerance threshold for hot flavours (tip: don’t start at the hottest level of spice…). I will definitely put myself forward for more public engagement events like this and will add it to the list of pleasant PhD surprises.