Reducing Alcohol-Related Problems: Learning from Others

How can we be reducing alcohol-related problems?

In this interview, Dr. Dwight Heath shares some of his knowledge and insights on reducing alcohol-related problems. He is the world’s leading anthropologist on drinking. He has studied studied cultures around the globe. As a result, he understands how drinking patterns are related to alcohol problems. Or to their absence He is interviewed by your host, David Hanson.

Be sure to visit Dr. Heath’s Teach Safe Drinking to Your College-Bound Teen.


Hanson —

Dr. Heath, you have shown amazing variability in how people think about and use alcohol around the world. Could you give an example of how attitudes toward alcohol differ from country to country.

Dr Heath —

reducing alcohol-related problems
Dr. Dwight B. Heath

I’d be glad to. Attitudes toward drink are very important because. That’s because they influence drinking behaviors. In France, wine is considered a food. So it’s available in school cafeterias. And airline pilots historically had it with their meals.

Children are taught how to drink wine in their family. They can buy it easily at grocery stores. In contrast, in Sweden until recently, no one could buy alcohol except by written request. And all alcohol was sold in state monopoly stores.

Further, it has been shown that members of religious groups prohibiting alcohol are disadvantaged. That is, if they drink it. The lack of guidelines leads to a high proportion of problems among those who do consume. Alcohol is forbidden but said to be empowering, sexually arousing, and disinhibiting. So is it any wonder that they often drink heavily? And then act badly?

Hanson —

You raise an important point. That is, what people think about alcohol influences their actions when drinking. Could you elaborate?

Dr. Heath —

reducing alcohol-related problemsYes. Expectations influence how they behave when drinking. That is, what people expect alcohol to do to them. There is great cross-cultural evidence that people learn how to be affected by drink. That is, how they are to feel and act.

Also, many experiments have been done in different cultures. What they show is clear. People are affected by what they think they have been drinking. Far more than by by what they have actually been drinking.

If people have non-alcoholic drinks that they think contains alcohol, they tend to become “intoxicated.” But when they have an alcoholic beverage that they think is non-alcoholic, they tend to act “sober.”

And if people think that drinking leads to violence, then they tend to become violent when drinking. If they think that it makes people sexy, they tend to become amorous. And if they think that alcohol disinhibits, then they tend to become disinhibited when drinking.

Because behavior reflects expectations, a society gets the kind of intoxicated behavior that it expects.

Hanson –

So teaching that drinking alcohol, even in moderation, leads to bad behaviors would tend to be counter productive? It would appear that we should be careful not to stigmatize alcohol. And also the people who drink it in moderation.

Dr. Heath —

That’s right. People tend to conform to expectations. Such a negative approach tends to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. That is, it tends to bring about the very behaviors that it seeks to prevent.

Hanson —

So we have to be careful. What we teach in alcohol education is clearly important.

Dr. Heath —

Indeed, we have to be very careful in the messages that we send. It isn’t helpful to stigmatize a product that, used in moderation, is linked with better health. And also longer life. That is, in comparison with either abstaining or drinking heavily. This is especially the case when to do so tends to increase those problems that do exist.

Hanson —

But isn’t it necessary to warn young people about the dangers of abusing alcohol?

Dr. Heath —

Yes. It’s essential that we teach everyone the dangers of abuse. But in doing so we must be careful to distinguish between drinking in moderation and drinking too much.

Dr. Heath

Societies that have few alcohol problems tend to view drinking in moderation as good. But they view abusive drinking as bad. And for anyone of any age. Or any  circumstance. Or at any time.

Hanson —

What else can we learn from other societies?

Dr. Heath

There are many cultures that successfully control alcohol abuse. In them, young people usually learn how to drink at home from their parents. In learning how to drink, they are also learning how not to drink. This helps promote moderation and reduces abuse. Importantly, this learning occurs in a caring, safe, supportive environment. It doesn’t occur  in a fraternity house or military barrack.

Some groups promote abstinence as the only option. They tend to have more problems among those who do drink.

Hanson —

Thank you for sharing your experience and observations, Professor Heath.

Dr. Heath —

You’re very welcome.

Dwight B. Heath is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology (Research) at Brown University. He  has authored over 200 articles or chapters in scientific books and journals around the world. Dr. Heath has also written or edited over a half dozen books. He is an expert on reducing alcohol-related problems

    • This website gives no advice about drinking. Please see your doctor for answers.