The New Prohibition: The Hip Culture Wants You to Abstain

As legalized marijuana becomes a reality, American Temperance rises.

Posted Mar 19, 2017

Addendum: March 24: Time, Alcohol is good for your heart—most of the time. 

Drinking alcohol in moderation is linked to a lower risk of certain heart problems. Just don't overdo it.

America is a temperance culture -- a country where the movement to ban alcohol has been strong -- along with a handful of other nations (every one of them English-speaking or Nordic). Yet many or most of these other cultures have abandoned their temperance roots (it is hard to call the UK, Australia, even Ireland and Sweden, temperance nations today). But in the U.S. temperance runs strong, even being adopted by many of its leading intellectual forces.

As I write this, one of America's most famous reformed drinkers, Jimmy Breslin, has died. Breslin, and his equally famous abstinent, formerly hard-drinking Irish-American journalism friend, Pete Hamill (author of A Drinking Life: A Memoir) were pioneers in the New York culture of neoabstinence.

It might seem arbitrary to point out that the two men were Irish bred. However, they are prototypes. As I pointed out may years ago in the New York Times, George Vaillant's book about drinking by urban ethnic groups found, "Irish Americans subjects were seven times more likely to manifest alcohol dependence than subjects of Mediterranean descent." And, yet, Vaillant found that the Irish were far more likely to abstain!

How is that possible? Here's another "paradox": There's a negative correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed in a culture and the percentage of those who experience drinking problems -- including (hold onto your hat) a far higher level of cirrhosis in the nations that drink the least alcohol overall!

How is that possible, class? Drinking problems, up to and including cirrhosis, are caused by imbibing great amounts of alcohol at a time -- binge drinking. In Southern European cultures, alcohol, most often in the form of wine, is drunk regularly and moderately, with meals. 

As one Italian described this difference in drinking patterns:

In the Northern countries, alcohol is described as a psychotropic agent. . .. It has to do with the issue of control and with its opposite – ‘discontrol’ or transgression. In the Southern countries, alcoholic beverages – mainly wine – are drunk for their taste and smell, and are perceived as intimately related to food, thus as an integral part of meals and family life.

Ancient prejudices, you say? These differences were even more firmly established by the cross-cultural study of drinking patterns, where Irish binge drinking on weekends, along with steady moderate Italian drinking, have been certified by empirical research: Ireland is the leading (but not the only) European binge-drinking nation (consider the Finns), and contrasts starkly with Italian drinking.

And, at the same time, in the words of Swede Mats Ramstedt and Irish National Alcohol Policy Adviser Ann Hope who studied Irish drinking in comparison with that of Central and Southern Europeans, "a significant proportion of the Irish population do not drink any alcohol. In this study 23 per cent had not consumed any alcohol during the past 12 months (the American percentage is higher!). Compared to the other European countries, this fraction is about three times as high."

Here is my summary of additional European research among young drinkers:

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) reports that, among Irish 15-to 16-year-olds, 47 percent have been drunk in the past year, 26 percent in the past month.

The comparable ESPAD figures for drunkenness among Italians teens are 27 percent (versus 47 percent) and 12 percent (versus 26 percent).

Why are young Italians so much less prone to get drunk? Recently, my friend and colleague Dr. Franca Beccaria published “Alcol e Generazioni” (Alcohol and Generations), comparing the introduction to drinking of young people in Italy versus northern cultures.

Youngsters in Italy have difficulty remembering when exactly they first tasted alcohol — but generally they recall it was between ages seven and eight, when their families allowed them a small amount of wine mixed with water. The northern Europeans to whom Italian youth were compared in this study were Finns. Like the Irish, Finnish children are not introduced to alcohol at home. The Finns typically drank for the first time at age 15-16. They did so with peers, and usually became intoxicated.

Older Italians and Finns remember this initiation into drinking as adults. In fact, they often recreate it. For example, the European Comparative Alcohol Study (ECAS) found among Finnish men that 29 percent of drinking occasions involve binge drinking. This figure is 13 percent for Italian men.

Lately, Scandinavian drinking has been memorialized by the autobiographical writing of Norwegian writer (he now lives in Sweden) Karl Ove Knausgaard, who described days of binge drinking in his youth:

The next three days were a blur, we drank day and night, slept at Asbjørn’s, got drunk in the morning, ate in town, continued drinking in his apartment, went out in the evening, to all sorts of weird places, such as Uglen or the bar at Rica, and it was wonderful, nothing could beat the feeling of walking across Torgalmenningen and Fisketorget in the middle of the day, drunk, it was as though I was right and everyone else was wrong, as though I was free and everyone else tied and bound to everyday life, and with Yngve and Asbjørn it didn’t seem wrong or excessive, just fun.

But that is changing to some degree, at least in Sweden. Sweden was forced by the EU to lower its barriers on imported European wines. But, strange to say, in Southern Sweden (centering around Stockholm), drinking problems declined with easier access to alcohol!  In this age of International communications and travel, the Swedes began drinking more like their Southern European neighbors!

Of course, the danger is that the same will happen in reverse -- which to some degree it has -- wherein Southern European youth are somewhat adopting the heavy-drinking tendencies of their Northern European neighbors (but not quite).  And here's the rub -- alcohol policies promulgated by the temperance-nation led international community are aimed at making Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Portugal more like the northern neighbors -- by forcing them to raise their drinking ages.

Which brings us to the U.S. The Northern European cultures want the Southern ones to raise their drinking age, like them, from 16 to 18 (in truth, there is no real drinking age in countries like Italy and Spain). Yet, only in America, the word leader in alcoholism treatment circles and temperance thinking, is the national drinking age 21!

I described this process of Americans and other temperance cultures teaching the world how to drink for Psychology Today, "End Alcoholism: Bomb Spain!" As I wrote for the Huffington Post: "I’m Single-Handedly Preserving the World’s Wine Cultures." I know, a little grandiose. However, you might note that when the world's leading cultural historian of addiction wrote a treatise on the recovery movement for Britain's leading journal, The Lancet, Virginia Berridge described my role:

One prominent debate in the UK last year, “The Future of Harm Reduction and Drug Prevention in the UK”, pitched Neil McKeganey, a sociologist and prominent advocate of abstinence, against Stanton Peele, a psychologist and analyst of the “meaning of addiction," thus epitomising the divergent positions.

Which brings us to the topic of this post. The Medium is a compilation of the leading-edge thinkers' blog posts in America. The Medium posts blog after blog telling people to abstain. In his post, "Why Men Drink," John DeVore describes how he quit drinking, and why you (as a man) should too. Just to touch base, this is how DeVore begins his essay -- and his drinking career:

I was eighteen when I first got drunk. It was in a dorm room on the woman’s floor. This was significant because A) I was talking to actual women B) I was drinking massive quantities of alcohol for the first time and C) everyone was laughing at my dumb jokes. Later that night I drunkenly convinced myself that I was vomiting blood. (It was not blood; I had been chasing whiskey with fruit punch.) The next day I was a legend. I had no physical or social skills to speak of but my liver was mighty.

Can you see where this is headed?

But DeVore is not alone. Just days before, a woman wrote about how she had never drunk, and regaled readers with story after story of sex, degradation, and drunkenness she had witnessed from those who did. Neither could convey a single positive drinking experience that they personally had or had witnessed!

Ah, but here's the rub. People who drink live longer, and suffer less dementia. I know, acknowledging that is a whole never-ending war that I described in Pacific Standard. Let me just summarize by pointing out that the largest ever prospective study of alcohol and mortality, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, funded by the American Cancer Society (who wanted alcohol to be bad) found that older Americans who had abstained through their lives suffered the highest death rate -- higher than those at the upper end of the drinking spectrum (5-6 drinks daily) in this study of a half-million Americans!

But that's not why people drink! They drink because it makes them feel good, because it celebrates conviviality and sociableness, because it is a life-affirming experience for most drinkers.

I'll end with one last story. Not long before she published her best-seller, Unbroken Brain, I met with Maia Szalavitz to discuss her work on her book. Maia describes her hard-fought emergence from heroin and cocaine addiction in her youth. Yes, we discussed this over (in her case) white wine (I had a beer).

You see, drinking -- or the urge to drink -- is nearly universal. And, in this era of a desire people have to experience the best of life for the time they are on earth, people are going to drink -- and more of them as they become better educated and are exposed to what life has to offer.

So the neo-Temperance movement has a tough row to hoe.

See Stanton's new way of thinking about addiction in his book (with Ilse Thompsen), Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life, and practice in his on-line Life Process Program.

Addendum (March 20th): For interesting comments about drinking by Maia Szalavitz, Muslims, Mormons, and me, read comments.

Addendum (March 25th):  At top of this post I added late news that drinking is good for you from Time.  Here is a review from the New York Times of a Noel Coward revival about Prohibition.  It is very tough to suppress something which many people find both healthy and fun.

Theater Review: Encores! Serves a Bathtub Martini in ‘The New Yorkers’

Encores! - The New Yorkers

by Ben Brantley, March 23

So this is what Manhattan looked like in the tipsy yesterday of Prohibition, when drinking was an illicit thrill you couldn’t get enough of, and the world was best seen through a martini glass — preferably of cut crystal and filled to the sloshing point with bathtub gin. The view, I must say, is divine.

Imbibe freely, all you kombucha-swilling health nuts of the 21st century, of the cocktail being served at City Center, where the delirious Encores! concert production of Cole Porter’s “The New Yorkers” runs through Sunday. The only hangover symptom you’ll feel is the blush that comes from having laughed incontinently at jokes that don’t seem all that funny in the daylight.