Nick Heather is Emeritus Professor of Alcohol and Other Drug Studies at Northumbria University.
After working as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, he developed the Addictive Behaviours Research Group at the University of Dundee.
In 1987 he became founding Director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. He returned to the UK in 1994 as Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Newcastle City Health NHS Trust and as Director of the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Studies.
He took up his present position on retirement from the NHS in 2003. He has published over 500 scientific articles, books, book chapters and other publications, with an emphasis on the treatment of alcohol problems and alcohol brief interventions.
Challenging the disease model of 'alcoholism.'
Nick Heather has published a number of books which present evidence and theories intended to disprove the notion that alcoholism exists as a disease.
In 1981 he co-authored a book on Controlled Drinking, which looked at a number of studies that found some dependent drinkers were able to return to problem free drinking.
In 1997 he co-authored book 'Problem Drinking' which was published by Oxford Medical Publications. The book extensively explored alcohol problems and their interpretation through various research and debate, repeatedly setting out evidence to contest disease model interpretations of alcohol problems.
As well as evidence of controlled drinking in some formerly dependent drinkers, a wide variety of other evidence is set out to contest the disease model. One strong theme of the book is the complexity of alcohol problems, whereby dependence itself can vary greatly in severity.
As such, he argues that there is no hard and fast line between 'alcoholics' and 'non-alcoholics', so the concept is inherently flawed. Also argued are that many people who do indeed develop alcohol dependence do recover, often spontaneously or without subscribing to any formal support. Dependence does not also mean an inevitable progression into worsening addiction and ultimately 'rock bottom', as is often claimed by disease model advocates.
Despite arguing that alcohol problems are in a large part attributable to social learning theory, he still recognises the role of genetics as an influencing risk factor for developing alcohol dependence. However whilst some people may have a genetic predisposition, there are a wide range of socio-psychological factors that also significantly influence risk of dependency, rendering disease model thinking simplistic and flawed.
In the 2007 interview with the Addiction Journal, Nick Heather stated he was "depressed by the resurgence of the notion of there is something called ‘alcoholism’ which is a brain disease", which has "held us back from a proper understanding of alcohol problems and how they may be resolved in all kinds of ways".
Nick Heather was also instrumental in establishing the 'New Directions in the Study of Alcohol Group' in the 1970s, which allowed those working in the addictions field to come together to discuss and challenge notions such as the disease model. Heather remains Honorary President of the Group, which held its 40th annual conference in 2016.