Stanton Peele and his ideas have had a profound effect on the field of alcohol and drug abuse. His ideas also have major implications for reducing substance abuse. He challenges many strongly held beliefs. And that threatens the status quo. Not surprisingly, he and his ideas often cause hostility.
Dr. Stanton Peele is interviewed by David J. Hanson. He’s Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
Dr. Peele, you are known as a very innovative and independent thinker. Therefore, your 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. That’s based on the centuries and thousands of cultures in which it has been used this way.
Looking at this the other way, some people misbehave with alcohol.This may lead to problem drinking and alcoholism. In this case, 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 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 attack all drinking. Doing this actually makes 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 newspaper headlines about drug and alcohol abusers. Mrs. Phil Hartman, Charlie Sheen and Carol O’Connor’s son. Then reflect on the fact that all of them were repeatedly treated for substance abuse in medical settings.
Of course, most public health officials enjoy drinking. Yet 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. From 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 it likewise rejects my views as too provocative.
Is your research held to a higher standard than that of other researchers? That is, are you being discriminated against?
From time to time, I have been recognized for my contributions. For example, I was awarded the Mark Keller Award from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies. It was for the best article to appear in the prestigious Journal of Studies on Alcohol.
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. They said it was but because other researchers had found it was all right.
Likewise, the NIAAA [National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism] has conducted Project MATCH. This was a major research program on alcoholism treatment.
I interpreted this research program as actually undercutting the primary assumptions about treatment in the U.S. And at the same time that several prominent MATCH researchers had been making quite similar points. But the MATCH researchers attacked me for making these points!
Do other non-conformist alcohol researchers and writers face the same problems that you do?
Benefits of alcohol
In the case of the, 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 of the Addiction Research Foundation for accepting such funding. I write back, “Robin, thanks for offering me a job at ARF so I can maintain my family and myself.”
In the case of alcohol the goal seems not to be actually to improve the situation, or the health of Americans. It’s to promote the proper ideology. Most Americans would be healthier if they drank more, rather than less. But this is impossible to state out loud. So 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 press conference in Washington DC, The Washington Post covered the proceedings almost with their tongue in cheek. Michael Jacobson is head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Although not present, he attacked the event. Nowhere did Jacobson or the Post deal with my principal point. It was 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.
Thank you for your time, Dr. Peele.
It was my pleasure.
Tell Children the Truth about Drinking
Teaching children to drink in moderation appears to inoculate them against alcohol abuse later in life. However, in the United States, we use the method of alcohol education found least successful in scientific research which teaches that abstinence is the only way, asserts Dr. Stanton Peele.
After years of debate, the U.S. government has finally decided that alcohol can be beneficial. Federal dietary recommendations, revised every five years, now indicate that moderate drinking lowers the risk of heart disease. The dietary guidelines note that such “beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals throughout human history.”
There is both old and new information in this statement. We all know that many Americans drink only occasionally or lightly at meals and social occasions. They know when to quit, don’t misbehave when they drink and enjoy the taste and sensations of alcohol without going overboard
Most of us are also aware that people in different cultures handle alcohol differently. In Mediterranean societies — Italy, Spain, Portugal — alcohol is consumed in the form of wine, usually at meals, by family members of all ages. Even small children are served wine on special occasion, and many European countries permit adolescents to drink with their families at restaurants.
To many Americans, the idea of offering children alcohol is reprehensible. Yet, this approach to drinking seems to inoculate children against alcohol abuse later in life. A study conducted by Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant followed a group of men in Boston for more than four decades. The Italian, Greek and Jewish men were only one-seventh as likely as Irish Americans in the study to become alcoholic.
In contemporary America, we are taught that alcoholics are born, not made. Yet no gene determines that any individual will become an alcoholic. Rather, development of adult alcoholism is a long-term, interactive process. Despite our claim to advanced medical knowledge about alcoholism, America produces many more problem drinkers than do many traditional cultures.
The groups in the Vaillant study that had few alcoholics actually teach children responsible drinking at home. The problem with a blanket disapproval of drinking is that many children develop drinking habits on their own that are very different from sipping wine at a religious feast or family meal. National surveys show that up to half of college students and high school seniors have drunk five or more drinks at one sitting in the prior two weeks. Among fraternity and sorority members, this figure is 80 percent.
Ironically, in the United States today, we follow the method of alcohol education found least successful in the Vaillant study. That is, alcohol is grouped with illicit drugs, and children are taught that abstinence is the only answer. Yet children are aware that most adults drink, and many drink alcohol themselves on the sly. Moreover, drinking will be legal and widely available to them within a few short years. Clearly, many young people find the abstinence message confusing and hypocritical.
Studies that examine health outcomes among groups of adults who have been tracked for years find that moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers. What is moderate drinking? The government defined this as no more than two drinks daily for men and one for women. Britain has defined higher sensible drinking limits — two to three drinks for women and three to four for men.
The lower death rate among moderate drinkers is due to the reduction in heart disease. And specifically atherosclerosis or clogging of the arteries. Alcohol enhances high density or good cholesterol production.
However, when people average more than two drinks daily, they are more likely to suffer from such diseases as cancer and cirrhosis. At five to six drinks daily for men and four drinks for women, these risks distinctly outweigh the benefits of drinking.
What are people to make of these complications in the message about alcohol? Like most things in life, sound judgment and moderation are the bywords. After all, there are many things people consume occasionally — such as meat, desserts or cigars — that if done to excess become health problems.
Even adolescents can define the difference between healthy and unhealthy drinking. I recommend holding such open discussions among teenagers in place of the standard temperance lecture that passes for alcohol education. After all, even the government confirms that all drinking is not bad.
Dr. Stanton Peele is a leading figure in the field of alcoholism and addiction. He is the author of these and other books.
III. Select Books by Stanton Peele
Discover more at the Peele Addiction Website.
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