It's Better to Drink Moderately Than to Abstain

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D. and Ruth C. Engs, R. N., Ed.D.

The constant barrage of one-sided negative messages about alcohol, equating it with illicit and illegal drugs, may actually be counter-productive and reinforce destructive drinking patterns, according to Profs. David J. Hanson and Ruth C. Engs.


The assertion that its better to drink moderately than to abstain will be viewed by some people with shock; it is "politically incorrect" and, therefore, virtually unspoken. Although widely recognized by medical researchers as correct, scholars who dare to express it publicly risk being stigmatized, losing their research funding or being banished to academic Siberia. Others wonder why anyone would even mention the benefits of moderate drinking.

We all know that thousands of lives are lost each year due to drunk driving. Millions of dollars are spent on health care, treatment and criminal prosecution as the result of alcohol abuse. And drinking too much increases the risks of many illnesses.

However, the association of moderate drinking with greater health and longevity is never mentioned at all in federally sponsored alcohol educational programs. Most information concerning alcohol focuses on the negative effects of abuse.

For most substances, including aspirin, minerals and vitamins, there are appropriated doses for optimal health. As is also true with alcohol, too much can result in toxic effects, illness or even death. Food addicts often suffer severe health problems and premature deaths from overeating. Compulsive exercisers may continue to exercise even if they are injured, thus causing additional pain and harm to themselves. Yet rarely are we admonished to avoid these activities for fear that excessive involvement may lead to health problems.

Most importantly, the vast majority of adults eat, exercise and drink alcohol in a moderate, health promoting manner. Only a small minority are abusers. Although there are many articles on how to eat or exercise in a balanced way, there is a lack of information concerning methods for moderate or healthful drinking.

Of course people who are allergic to aspirin and certain foods should not consume them. Likewise, people who have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, are taking certain medications, or are advised by their physicians to abstain, should not be drinking alcohol.

Rather than simply focusing upon the negative consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, we need to be encouraging moderate consumption for those who choose to drink. Encouraging the moderate use of alcohol simultaneously discourages its immoderate use. For example, Jewish and Italian-American children typically learn to drink in moderation at home with the encouragement and good example of their parents as appropriate role models. While most Jews and Italian Americans drink, very few experience any difficulties arising from alcohol.

However, other groups in our society believe that alcohol is unacceptable for religious or other reasons and prohibit its use. Importantly, members from such groups are at high risk for problem drinking if they choose to drink. They have not learned how to drink appropriately from parental role models.

Children from abstinence backgrounds often learn to equate any consumption of alcohol with immoderate use and problem behaviors. Individuals from these backgrounds who decide to drink have a lack of information and experience concerning moderate drinking. Thus, the barrage of negative messages about alcohol may actually be counter-productive and reinforce negative drinking patterns.

Alcohol in some form has been a pleasant part of life in most cultures throughout human history. Importantly, most societies have accepted alcohol as a natural and normal beverage and have generally experienced few problems as a result of its use.

We are currently in the middle of a "Just Say No" anti-alcohol movement. This is why it is "politically incorrect" even to discuss the moderate use of alcohol for adults today. But this does little, if anything, to prevent problem drinking and nothing to promote healthful drinking. Rather than only focusing on the negative consequences of abusive drinking, we need to promote objective information concerning moderate drinking and encourage adults who choose to drink to do so in a healthful manner.


Dr. David Hanson, Ph. D., is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He is author of over 280 publications including Preventing Alcohol Abuse (1995) and Alcohol Education (1996).

Dr. Ruth Engs, R.N., Ed.D., is Professor of Applied Health Science at Indiana University and has taught at the University of Queensland (Australia) and Dalhousie University (Canada). She is a leading international authority on alcohol use and abuse among both college students and women and has authored over a half-dozen books in addition to many dozens of book chapters, research articles and scholarly papers on alcohol and alcohol problems.


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