Interview with Dr. Stanton Peele
Dr. Stanton Peele's ideas have had a profound effect on the field of alcohol and drug abuse, and they have major implications for how we might best lower the incidence of substance abuse. Because these ideas often threaten the status quo and many fervently held beliefs, his ideas often engender hostility. He is interviewed here by Dr. David J. Hanson, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
Dr. Peele, you are known as a very innovative and independent thinker whose ideas are often inconsistent with those of the conventional alcohol establishment. How have the defenders of the status quo reacted to you and your ideas?
Well, first we must make clear in which ways my ideas defy conventional wisdom. Among these differences are that I see alcohol as a benign and potentially beneficial substance, based on the centuries and thousands of cultures in which it has been used this way. Looking at this the other way, when people misbehave with alcohol, including problem drinking and alcoholism, I explore the social influences, psychological problems, and value deficiencies of the individual drinker.
These two fundamental orientations antagonize the American moral and medical establishments. Americans wish to see evil in the bottle or, failing that, in the genes of the problem drinker. They find it too complex to understand how social and psychological factors influence drinking. Unfortunately, this means that we devise policies that, by attacking all drinking, actually make the drinking that takes place more problematic. At the same time, we hold out hope for a medical cure for alcoholism which will never occur. Just think of all the recent newspaper headlines about drug and alcohol abusers -- Mrs. Phil Hartman, Charlie Sheen, Carol O'Connor's son -- and reflect that all of them were repeatedly treated for substance abuse in medical settings.
Of course, most public health officials enjoy drinking; but to announce this out loud is to invite ostracism. But where I have received the most virulent, career-threatening attacks has been from A.A., recovering (or trying to recover) alcoholic, and the private alcoholism treatment industry. These groups have devoted significant resources to trying to bury me and my views. Ironically, there is a large academic and research industry in the U.S. which more or less recognizes the accuracy in what I say, but which likewise reject my views as too provocative -- except when they want to use me as a stalking horse against the traditional temperance/AA zealots!
Is your research held to a higher standard than that of conventional researchers? That is, are you being discriminated against?
From time to time, I have been recognized for my contributions -- I was awarded the Mark Keller Award from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies in 1989, for example, for the best article to appear in the prestigious Journal of Studies on Alcohol (where today I would not be asked to review a book). More often, however, I have been ignored or put down for saying the same thing as others, but more forcefully and at an earlier point! For example, I attacked the failure of academic research institutions like Rutgers to maintain active controlled drinking therapy programs. But when Rutgers began such a program, they were at pains to indicate they didn't do so because of the evidence I had been citing for years, but because other researchers had found it was all right.
Likewise, the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) has conducted Project MATCH, a research program on alcoholism treatment. I interpreted this research program as actually undercutting the primary assumptions about treatment in the U.S. -- just at the same time that several prominent MATCH researchers have been making quite similar points. But the MATCH researchers have meanwhile attacked me for making these points!
Do other non-conformist alcohol researchers and writers face the same problems that you do?
Yes, but they often quit from frustration or else capitulate. This has been true of those combating the alcoholism treatment industry. In the case of the benefits of alcohol, thank goodness, there has been somewhat more resistance to the reign of prejudice over truth. This is because it has been simply impossible to bury the fact that drinkers live longer than nondrinkers. Naturally, the Harvard Medical School and other researchers who support my views are considerably more cautious in announcing these things. But the movement in both areas has been in my direction. If I wait long enough, I expect they'll be presenting me with career awards commending me for my bravery when I get old.
Have your views hurt your professional career in any way?
Well, I view myself as a remarkably self-maintaining cultural resource on alcohol problems and alcohol. I have kept going despite opposition and a lack of support for decades. At my website, readers describe how reading my work has saved their lives. But I also list a sampling of some of the many diatribes of which I have been an object.
I have maintained positions that were otherwise almost buried on the American alcoholism scene. But no research or treatment or public organization will support me, financially or otherwise. In recent years, I have found some financial support from consulting on cultural and social issues with alcohol producers. I am then amused to be attacked by people like Robin Room (formerly Vice President for Research at the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario -- who has recently lost his job himself!) for accepting such funding. I write back, "Robin, thanks for offering me a job at ARF so I can maintain my family and myself."
It would appear that censorship is occurring. This isn't supposed to happen in science, and if new and unconventional ideas are suppressed, how can we develop sound ways to reduce drinking problems?
In the case of alcohol (as with drugs) the issue seems not to be actually to improve the situation, or the health of Americans, but to endorse the proper ideology. When we consider that most Americans would be healthier if they drank more, rather than less, but that this is impossible to state out loud, we see that public health officials don't really want to improve health or prolong life. They want to say the right things! Actually, this process is more true than not in nearly every policy area. It is only in a case where the bottom line is life and health that it seems so noticeable and irrational.
At a recent press conference in Washington DC, organized by the Wine Institute, The Washington Post covered the proceedings almost with their tongue in cheek. Michael Jacobson (who was not actually present) attacked the proceedings. Nowhere did Jacobson or the Post deal with my principal point, which is that attacking alcohol in the guise of public health policy actually results in more, rather than less, problematic drinking. This is a critical, radical assessment about which one would hope they might be interested in assessing the truth.
Thank you for your time, Dr. Peele.
It was my pleasure.
Stanton Peele is a leading figure in the field of alcoholism and addiction. He is the author of, among other works, "Love and Addiction," "The Meaning of Addiction," "Diseasing of America," and "The Truth About Addiction and Recovery." Dr. Peele has received the Mark Keller Award from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Foundation. (http://peele.sas.nl)
Filed Under: Alcohol-Abuse