It’s Better to Drink in Moderation Than to Abstain from Alcohol

Many groups equate alcohol with illegal drugs. However, this may actually be counter-productive and reinforce destructive drinking patterns. Here, Profs. David J. Hanson and Ruth C. Engs point out that it’s better to drink in moderation than to abstain. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to those with a good reason not to drink.)


better to drink in moderationThe assertion that its better to drink moderately than to abstain will shock some people. It’s “politically incorrect” and, therefore, virtually unspoken. Although widely recognized by medical researchers, scholars who dare to express it publicly risk being stigmatized. They risk 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 from 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 health and longevity is rarely mentioned. And it’s never mentioned at all in federally sponsored alcohol educational programs. Most information concerning alcohol focuses on the negative effects of abuse.

Moderation is Key

For most substances, including minerals, vitamins, and meds, 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 dieters can die as a result. Compulsive exercisers may harm their health. Yet rarely are we warned to avoid eating, dieting, or exercising. We engage in these activities without 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. There are many articles on how to eat, diet, or exercise in a balanced way. On the other hand, there’s little information about moderate or healthful drinking.

Of course people who are allergic to aspirin and certain foods should not consume them. Likewise, people who are alcoholic, are taking certain meds, or whose doctors tell them to abstain should do so.

Avoiding Problems

We tend to focus on the negative effects of alcohol abuse. However, we should be encouraging moderate consumption for those who choose to drink. Promoting the moderate use of alcohol simultaneously discourages its abuse. For example, Jewish and Italian-American children typically learn to drink in moderation at home. They have the good example of their parents as appropriate role models. While most Jews and Italian Americans drink, very few abuse 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.

Abstinence Background

Children from abstinence backgrounds tend to equate any consumption of alcohol with abuse and problems. Those from such backgrounds who decide to drink lack knowledge about moderate drinking. Thus, the barrage of negative messages about alcohol can actually be counter-productive.

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. As a result, they have generally experienced few problems from abuse.

We are currently in the midst of a modern temperance 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 it does nothing to promote healthful drinking. We shouldn’t focus only on the negative effects of alcohol abuse. Instead, we need to promote objective information concerning moderate drinking. And we need to encourage adults who choose to drink to do so in a healthful manner.

The Authors

Dr. David Hanson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He is author of over 300 publications and papers on alcohol. They include Preventing Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Education. Both he and Dr. Engs believe it’s much better to drink in moderation, unless contra-indicated.

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