A Civilized Society
By Teresa Kellerman 2001
FAS Community Resource Center

I cringe every time I see a newspaper or magazine report about the healthy benefits of drinking alcohol. Partly because these studies do in fact show reduced rates of heart disease in those who drink three to five drinks per week. What bothers me most though is that the adverse effects seem to be ignored.

Recently I came across an article that compares the risks as well as the benefits to the health and mortality of countries based on cultural attitudes toward alcohol (Peele, Alcohol & Alcoholism, 32, 51-64, 1997). This article states that among Western countries, there are measurable differences in alcohol consumption that are associated with health problems. In countries with a temperance culture, we see higher rates of chronic heart disease. In countries with a culture where social drinking is acceptable, we do see lower rates of chronic heart disease (CHD), but we also see higher rates of mortality from cirrhosis, accidents, and cancer, which indicates that the health benefits touted by recommending that “one drink a day is healthy for you” are apparently counterbalanced by the adverse health risks.

Unfortunately, the study mentioned above only looked at the consequences of alcohol consumption in terms of health and mortality. It did not take into account the behavioral consequences such as child abuse and domestic violence, or the potential effects on crime rates or the economy. And it did not take into account the ripple effect (no pun intended), as we look into the future to see the far-reaching consequences of the effects on generations to come. What will statistics show ten years from now for countries with an increasing rate of alcohol consumption? All those children born to mothers who “only” drank one drink a day will be having serious behavior and learning problems. Twenty years from now, those ever-so-slightly alcohol affected children will be emerging into the adult world of parenthood, homelessness, crime, and substance abuse. And what of the children whose parents believed that if one a day is good, more is better? Those children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and related disorders will be robbed of a future of healthy independence.

Rates for drunk driving have decreased (Traffic Safety Facts for 1997, U.S. Department of Transportation). The rate of underage drinking has decreased and the overall use of illicit drugs has been reduced significantly in the past decades (National Household Survey, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999). However, the rate of drinking during pregnancy has increased (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1998). Again, culture plays a significant role. The rate of drinking during pregnancy is greater among middle class white women than other cultural classes. Women with higher education and decent household income are at greater risk of causing permanent harm to their children’s future health. And most of these children are at risk of ending up on the street, in a mental institution, or in prison (Streissguth, American Journal of Psychiatry, 155, 552-554, 1998). So much for civilization and culture.

The above-mentioned study that compares health outcomes with drinking behavior in different cultures suggests that it may not be beneficial to attempt to regulate society’s drinking behavior. This study was underwritten by the wine industry. Decreased alcohol consumption may not benefit the producers of alcoholic beverages, but imagine the benefits to individuals protected from alcohol’s adverse effects, their families, their communities, our communities, our future as a healthy civilized society.

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