A Cause of Alcohol Problems (It May Surprise You)

People commonly think that high consumption levels are a cause of alcohol problems. That is, the higher the drinking level, the more the problems. But the experience of societies and other groups shows this isn’t so. In short, drinking levels aren’t the cause of alcohol problems.

In fact, beliefs and attitudes about alcohol are very powerful. They can either cause or prevent alcohol problems.

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A Cause of Alcohol Problems

Nine Western countries have had large-scale sustained temperance movements in the 19th and/or 20th centuries. They are Australia, Canada, Finland, Great Britain, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the US.

On the other hand, 11 have not. They are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany.

This chart1shows that societies with a prohibitionist tradition consume much less alcohol. However, they have much greater problems from that lower consumption.

Prohibitionist Tradition CountriesModeration Countries
Alcohol Consumption in liters per capita8.714.1
Alcoholics Anonymous groups per million population167.140.9
Heart Disease death rate for men aged 55-64775410

cause of alcohol problemsDrinking rates are high among Italian, Chinese, Greek, and Jews. But alcohol-related problem rates among these groups is very low.

On the other hand, abstention rates among the Irish are among the very highest in the Western world. And they have a very high rate of drinking problems both in Ireland and the U.S.2

Americans of higher social and economic status are more likely to drink. But but less likely to have drinking problems. That’s in comparison with those of lower social and economic status.3

And the southern and mountain regions of the U.S. have “dry” traditions. As a result, they have high levels of both abstinence and alcohol problems.4

In short, higher drinking levels aren’t the cause of alcohol problems.

  1. Data adapted from Table 1 in Peele, S. The conflict between public health goals and the temperance mentality. Am J Pub Health, 83, 803-810.

2. Glassner, B., and Berg, B. How Jews avoid alcohol problems. Am Soc Rev, 45, 647-664. Greeley, A. et al. Ethnic Drinking Subcultures. Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Cahalan, D., and Room, R. Problem Drinking among American Men. Vaillant, G. The Natural History of Alcoholism. Peele, S. Utilizing culture and behaviour in models of alcohol consumption and consequences for Western nations. Alco Alco, 32, 51-64. Barnett, M. Alcoholism in the Cantonese of New York City. In: Diethelm, O. (Ed.) Chronic Alcoholism. Pp. 179-227. Heath, D. A View of Alcohol and Culture. In: Heath, D. (Ed.) Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Pp. 341-342.

3. Hilton, M. Demographic characteristics and the frequency of heavy drinking as predictors of drinking problems. Brit J Addict, 82, 913-925.

4. Peele, S. How Culture Influences the Way People Drink. Hilton, M. Regional diversity in U.S. drinking practices. Brit J Addiction, 83, 519-532.

Filed Under: Alcohol Abuse