It's Better to Teach Safe Use of Alcohol

Many societies and groups have successfully prevented alcohol problems. How we can apply their techniques both in our families and in our society to reduce the abuse of beer, wine, and distilled spirits or liquor?

With much wringing of hands, we seem to be a nation petrified by the thought that someone somewhere may be drinking too much and running amok. Many activists feed this paranoia with their insistence on talking about alcohol in the same breath as illicit drugs.

And yet, humankind has had a relationship with beverage alcohol for over 6,000 years, suggesting that we need to divorce the subject from the emotionalism that has engulfed it, and approach it from a more intelligent, reasonable perspective.

Abusive drinking is, without question, a serious problem. But we will never make real progress against that problem until we take a hard look at the approach modeled by those cultures that have established a "truce" with alcohol--from Italians to Greeks, to Jews to many others.

And what exactly is the model these cultures share? It can be defined on three levels:

  1. Beliefs About the Substance of Alcohol - In these cultures, the substance of alcohol is seen neutrally. It is neither a terrible poison nor a magic potion.
  2. The Act of Drinking - The act of drinking is seen as natural and normal. At the same time, there is little or no social pressure to drink, and absolutely no tolerance for abusive drinking.
  3. Education About Drinking - Education about drinking starts early and starts in the home. Young people are taught--under their parents' supervision, through their parents' example--that if they drink, they should drink moderately.

To date, this three-part approach has allowed many cultures to avoid the alcohol abuse problems plaguing our society. Still, our federal government and many others in the U.S. prevention field fail to learn from this model--opting instead to depict alcohol as a "dirty drug," something to be shunned and feared; to promote abstinence as the best choice for all people; to work toward reducing all drinking.

Contrasting alcohol "policy" in our culture with the policies promoted elsewhere, we are presented with several logical steps.

  • Encourage moderate use of alcohol among those who choose to drink. Moderate drinking and abstinence should be presented as equally acceptable choices. Those who choose to drink should not force drinking upon abstainers. Those who choose not to drink should have comparable respect for those who do.
  • Make systematic efforts to clarify and promote the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable drinking. Effective education is based on much more than telling people what not to do.
  • Firmly penalize unacceptable drinking, both legally and socially. While the criminal justice system has an important role to play in this effort, the most essential role is played by individual peers. Intoxication must never be humored and never accepted as an excuse for "bad behavior."
  • End the current reduction-of-consumption approach to dealing with alcohol abuse. This approach wrongly assumes that the substance of alcohol is the necessary and sufficient cause of all drinking problems and that the availability of alcohol determines the extent to which it will be consumed and abused. Accordingly, policies developed from this approach focus on limiting (or reducing) availability. And because they are founded on questionable assumptions, such policies not only fail to achieve their objectives, they may, in fact, be counterproductive, especially when we consider the evidence suggesting that moderate drinking can enhance individual health.
  • Finally, end all attempts to stigmatize beverage alcohol as a "dirty drug," as a poison, as inherently harmful. Demonizing alcohol serves no practical purpose, contributes to cultural emotionalism and ambivalence, and exacerbates the problems it seeks to solve.

Reasonable people, reasonably concerned about these issues, should give this proven approach a chance. If so, America will surely place itself on course toward a far more successful relationship with the beverage alcohol.

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