Dr. Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky explain exactly how we can reduce alcohol abuse. Peele is a psychologist who has received many prestigious awards for his ground-breaking work in alcohol studies. Brodsky is a faculty member in the Harvard University Medical School.
Socializing the Young
We can prepare young people to live in a nation where most people do drink. We do so best by teaching them the difference between responsible and irresponsible drinking. The most reliable mechanism for doing this is the positive parental model.
Indeed, the single most crucial source of good alcohol education is the family. One that puts drinking in perspective. It uses it to enhance social gatherings in which people of all ages and both genders enjoy. (Picture the difference between drinking with your family and drinking with “the boys.”) Alcohol does not drive the parents’ behavior. It doesn’t keep them from being productive. And it doesn’t make them aggressive and violent. By this example, children learn that alcohol need not disrupt their lives. Nor serve as an excuse for violating normal social standards.
Ideally, this positive modeling at home would be reinforced by sensible-drinking messages in school. But alcohol education in school is ruled by a prohibitionist mentality. One that cannot acknowledge positive drinking.
As with illicit drugs, all alcohol use is seen as misuse. A child from a family in which alcohol is sensibly drunk is thus bombarded by negative teachings about it. Children may parrot this message in school. However, such unrealistic alcohol education is drowned out later by reality.
To illustrate this process with one ludicrous example. A high school newsletter said people who begin drinking at 13 have an 80% chance of becoming alcoholic! It added that the average age at which children begin to drink is 12.
Does that mean that nearly half of today’s children will grow up to be alcoholic? Is it any wonder that students dismiss these warnings? It seems as though schools want to tell them as many negative things as possible about alcohol.
Research finds that anti-drug programs like DARE are not effective. It is especially self-defeating to have the school program and family values in conflict.
Think of the confusion when a child returns from school to a moderate-drinking home. The school considers a parent who is drinking a glass of wine a “drug abuser.” Often the child is getting messages from AA members who lecture school students about the dangers of alcohol. In this case, the blind (uncontrolled drinkers) are leading the sighted (moderate drinkers). This is wrong, scientifically and morally, and counterproductive for individuals, families, and society.
Culture of Moderation?
There is an uneasy mix of ethnic drinking cultures in the US. In it we see the dual nature of a temperance culture. There is a large number of abstainers (30%). And small but still troubling minorities of alcohol-dependent drinkers (5%) and nondependent problem drinkers (15%) among adults.
On the other hand, we have a large culture of moderation. The largest category (50%) of adults are moderate drinkers. Most Americans who drink do so in a responsible manner. For example, the typical wine drinker generally consumes two or fewer glasses on any given occasion. It’s usually at mealtimes and in the company of family or friends.
Temperance Movement Haunts Us
We are still driven by the demons of the Temperance movement today. So we are doing our best to destroy a positive drinking culture. We do so by ignoring or denying its existence.
Dr. Stanton Peele worries that “the attitudes that characterize both ethnic groups and individuals with the greatest drinking problems are being propagated as a national outlook.” He explains that “a range of cultural forces in our society has endangered the attitudes that underlie the norm and the practice of moderate drinking. The widespread propagation of the image of the irresistible dangers of alcohol has contributed to alcohol abuse.”1
Dr. Selden Bacon was a founder and long-time director of what became the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies. He graphically described the perverse negativism of alcohol “education” in the U.S.
Current knowledge about alcohol use can be likened to…knowledge about automobiles and their use if the latter were limited to facts and theories about accidents and crashes…. [What is missing are] the positive functions and positive attitudes about alcohol uses in our as well as in other societies…. If educating youth about drinking starts from the assumed basis that such drinking is bad [and]…full of risk for life and property, at best considered as an escape, clearly useless per se, and/or frequently the precursor of disease, and the subject matter is taught by nondrinkers and antidrinkers, this is a particular indoctrination. Further, if 75-80% of the peers and elders are or are going to become drinkers, there [is]…an inconsistency between the message and the reality.2
What is the result of this negative indoctrination? During the past few decades per capita alcohol consumption in the U.S. has declined. However, the number of problem drinkers continues to rise, especially in younger age groups.
This trend contradicts the notion that reducing the overall drinking will result in fewer alcohol problems. But this idea is widely promoted in the public health field. Doing something meaningful about alcohol abuse requires a more profound intervention than “sin taxes” and fewer hours of selling. It requires cultural and attitudinal changes.
We Can Do Better
We can do better than we are. After all, we once did do better. In eighteenth-century America drinking took place more in a communal context than it does now. Per capita consumption was 2-3 times current levels. However, drinking problems were rare and loss of control was absent from descriptions of drunkenness. We can recover the balance and good sense our founders showed with alcohol.
It is long past time to tell the American people the truth about alcohol. We can reduce alcohol abuse. So let’s begin!
Resources: We can Reduce Alcohol Abuse
A Cause of Alcohol Problems. It May Surprise You.
Temperance Movement Today in US.
The Truth About Addiction and Recovery.
References for We can Reduce Alcohol Abuse
1 Holder, H. Prevention of alcohol-related accidents in the community. Addict, 1993, 88, 1003-1012.
2 Bacon, S. Alcohol issues and science. J Drug Iss 1984, 14, 22-24.
Adapted with editing by permission from Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky.