They’re telling us it’s about drinking. But it’s really about the social cost of alcoholism, which isn’t the same thing
The surprise about the recent study equating drinking alcohol with death is not that it gathered headlines. Of course it gathered headlines. The surprise is that so many reputable researchers said the headlines were overblown. Or, as University of Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter wrote after parsing the study’s numbers: “Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”
Aaron E. Carroll, who teaches at the Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote a reasoned critique in the New York Times. For one thing, he said, studies that amass numbers from other studies have inherent problems. For another, “just because something is unhealthy in large amounts doesn’t mean that we must completely abstain. … Consider that 15 desserts a day would be bad for you. This could lead to assertions that ‘there’s no safe amount of dessert.’ But it doesn’t mean you should never, ever eat dessert.”
What’s going on is a well-meaning attempt to cut the social cost of drinking, which is enormous. Alcoholism, in both dollars and misery, has been a scourge throughout recorded history. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that excessive drinking costs $250 billion annually and kills almost 90,000 people each year. There is also ample evidence that alcoholism devastates particular communities, be it native American reservations or blighted urban neighborhoods. The CDC, in fact, has proposed tighter alcohol retail regulation to help those communities. Do enough research, and you can even find suggestions that alcoholism played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And none of that even begins to describe that agony that alcoholism wreaks among friends and families. A friend of mine, an alcoholic, was reduced to living in his car at one point, and died surrounded by vodka bottles.
But well-meaning isn’t enough
Cutting alcoholism rates among native American youth, which are among the highest in the country, has absolutely nothing to do with whether I drink wine with dinner. It’s telling that Mothers Against Drunk Driving, perhaps the most high-profile anti-drinking group in the country, doesn’t go that far. MADD says the focus should be on the worst cases – the chronic abusers who drink and drive despite arrests, fines, and jail.
But the CDC and its neo-Prohibitionist allies have decided to target all of us. I’ve asked them why, and the standard response is that drinking is unhealthy. Which, as noted, is difficult to argue with.
My guess is that the neo-Prohibitionists are working off the success that anti-smoking groups have had since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report. Their mistake, of course, is that drinking and smoking are not the same thing. One can drink in moderation; one can’t smoke that way. And smoking’s social cost, as terrible as it is, is not like alcoholism’s. It’s rare anyone dies in their car because they’re addicted to nicotine.
Why anyone thinks that studies scaring social wine drinkers will stop alcoholics from drinking is beyond me; the issue is much more complex than that. Hopefully, the CDC and its allies will eventually figure this out, and we can come up with a reasonable and effective program to reduce alcoholism.
Until then, I’ll keep a wary eye out for those deadly desserts.
More about the CDC and drinking
• The federal government’s three-drink limit
• What the media didn’t tell you about the CDC alcohol study
• Bacon, wine, and what we eat and drink