Alcohol, Tradition and Health

The moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better health and greater longevity than is either abstinence or heavy drinking. However, the strong temperance and prohibition tradition in the United States has led many people to resist and disregard this scientifically established fact.

Sante. Skoal. To your health. It's how we toast each other with "the water of life" from Scotland. Or when we take a "little wine for the stomach's sake." The Russians say it with a proverb: "Drink a glass of schnapps after your soup and you steal a ruble from the doctor."

There's a long folk tradition in the societies and cultures that use wine, spirits and beer successfully that says these beverages not only bring pleasure to a gathering of friends and lift our spirits. They can also improve our health.

The sentiment is more than folk wisdom. The evidence is both increasing -- and increasingly clear -- that the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with greater health and increased longevity -- more so than either abstaining or consuming heavily. For example, we now know that:

  • Moderate drinkers tend to live longer than either those who abstain or drink heavily, with one study showing that those who drink moderately have a 21% to 28% lower risk of death from all causes than abstainers. Another study, of 12,000 male physicians in Great Britain, found that moderate drinkers had the lowest risk of death from all causes during the 13 year study
  • Moderate drinkers tend to enjoy better health than abstainers or heavy drinkers. One nation-wide survey in the U.S. showed that daily moderate drinkers experienced significantly fewer acute hospitalizations. And a Canadian study found that daily moderate drinkers had 15% less disability than the general population
  • Moderate drinkers are less likely to suffer heart attacks. After reviewing the accumulated studies on moderate drinking and heart attacks, one researcher concluded that having one or two drinks a day dramatically reduces "the chances of suffering cardiac death" and that "We don't have any drugs that are as good as alcohol."
  • Moderate drinkers suffer fewer incidents of a great many other diseases and health problems. These include stroke, hypertension, peripheral artery disease, Alzheimer's disease, even the common cold.

Despite the evidence, a great many Americans still don't understand the health benefits of moderate drinking. In fact, one poll -- conducted by ABC News in 1997 -- found that more than half of the public doesn't see the connection, with more than a third believing that moderate drinking is actually bad for a person's health.

We can attribute that misunderstanding, in part, to another cultural tradition in the United States: the long "temperance" tradition in this country that tended to demonize alcohol and drinking, especially spirits.

We see that tradition at work, for instance, in the reluctance of many people in this country -- even some government officials -- to acknowledge the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Even many of those who do acknowledge the benefits, frequently want to attribute them to something other than alcohol. Or they want to limit the benefits to one kind of beverage.

The truth is that the benefits come from the substance alcohol and they come from using it in moderation. The media attention a few years ago to the so-called "French Paradox" led to a great misperception that the health benefits are limited to red wine, and that simply isn't the case. You get equivalent benefits from the moderate consumption of spirits and beer. Is there a way for us to overcome our confusion and ambivalence about alcohol in this country? I think so. A good place to start is by paying attention to traditions and cultures outside our own that do use alcohol successfully and with less confusion than ours. They include Italian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Jews. I think we in this country can benefit a great deal by learning from the experience of these successful societies in which most people use alcohol with few problems.

There are three keys to the successful use of alcohol in these cultures:

  1. Viewing the substance of alcohol neutrally, as neither poison nor magical elixir.
  2. Providing two acceptable options for alcohol use. One is abstinence. The other is moderation. Successful societies do not condone or permit abuse. In these successful societies abstainers and moderate drinkers respectfully co-exist, with neither trying to force its views on the other.
  3. Learning about drinking from an early age at home, in a safe, caring, loving environment. I think we'd all agree that it would be better to learn about drinking in a parent's house than in a fraternity house -- where too many young people now "learn" about drinking, and learn badly.

In short, to enjoy the health benefits of moderate consumption and to use alcohol successfully in our society, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. All we have to do is open our eyes to see what works and have the courage to reject what doesn't.


Reprinted from The American Mix, 2001, 1(2), 5, where it appeared under a different title. For a free subscription to this informative newspaper, available to those aged 21 or older, contact


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