Mixed Messages About Alcohol

Many alcohol abuse prevention agencies and organizations caution against making statements that can send mixed messages about alcohol and drinking. There is concern that such messages will confuse people and dilute educational efforts. But what is a mixed message and how can we recognize one?

Do any of these statements send a mixed message and, if so, which are the offending assertions?

  1. Alcohol helps many people relax or be more sociable at parties.
  2. Any substance, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It is only the improper use, misuse, or abuse of substances that is bad.
  3. It's fine to relax with a beer at the end of a hard day. But know your limit. Many people use alcohol in social settings to relax and to celebrate special occasions. There is nothing wrong with social drinking as long as one stays within moderation and does not drive after drinking.
  4. Part of growing up is learning how to make wise decisions. If you choose to drink, drink responsibly. Don't overdo it. And don't drink and drive.
  5. If you want to teach your children to be responsible with alcohol, be a responsible drinker yourself.

Actually, all of these have been identified by the US government's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention as sending mixed messages and to be avoided. 1 Are any of these statements incorrect? No, Do any of these statements mislead? No. They are offensive only because they are inconsistent with the abstinence ideology being promoted by the federal government.

All of the supposedly dangerous statements listed above are characteristic of societies in which drinking is common but alcohol abuse is uncommon. Far from being dangerous, they are actually protective of alcohol abuse and they should be promoted rather than discredited. In reality, suppressing them promotes alcohol abuse!

The current concern over mixed messages is not new. Temperance advocates thought that alcohol was a dangerous poison that should never be consumed. But doctors routinely prescribed alcohol for its health and therapeutic benefits. Therefore, temperance leaders insisted that books never ever mention this fact because it would send a "mixed message." Ideology prevailed over truth and balance then as it does now.

The concern over preventing mixed messages rather than in promoting the truth reveals a desire to indoctrinate rather than to educate. It reveals a distrust in the intelligence of people and in their ability to think and reason. It reveals a desire to suppress facts and hide knowledge. And it is inconsistent with helping people make well-informed decisions based on the best available evidence. It may be useful in a dictatorship, but not in a free society.

After repeatedly deceiving students, we're surprised that they no longer trust us or believe what we tell them about alcohol. And, of course, our effectiveness evaporates. Prohibiting "mixed messages" is counter-productive in the long run.

We need to have the honesty and integrity to present the whole truth, rather than suppressing information in the misguided belief that it benefits people.


  • 1. Center for substance Abuse Prevention Communications Team. Technical Assistance Bulletin: You Can Avoid Common Errors as You Develop Prevention Materials. Washington DC: National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, 1994 (www.health.org/pubs/makepub/tab8.htm).