We Need To Talk
We need to talk. We need to talk about the role of rampant addiction in our culture and why seemingly this issue is out of bounds or an afterthought to many. Addiction is seldom discussed, yet addiction is everywhere - both on the fringes but also increasingly in the mainstream. We talk about terrorism, we talk about politics, we talk about transgender rights, but the massive epidemic of addiction in our society? Silence. It’s time for that to change.
If you ever want to hear a room get very quiet, just raise the subject of the substantial problems associated with alcohol in our culture - Not exactly your best approach at being the life of the party mind you. Of all of the taboo subjects, alcohol abuse quite possibly tops the list. When it comes to the “Merchants of Death” (alcohol, tobacco and firearms) we’re much more likely to debate guns and smoking, or even drugs for that matter. But booze…Fuhgeddaboudit.
Likely this is because collectively and statistically, almost all of us drink and having a frank dialogue on drinking forces us to take a look in the mirror at our own relationship with the bottle. The fact of the matter is that alcohol is woven into the fabric of daily life for the vast majority of Americans. It permeates almost every facet of American culture from wine at Thanksgiving dinner to beer on weekend afternoons watching football. For many it’s hard to fathom a barbeque, dinner party, or social gathering of any sort without alcohol as a pillar of the occasion.
Like almost every society on the planet, we drink, and that isn’t about to change any time soon. But in light of the mounting societal costs associated with drinking, there’s no excuse to not discuss the current alcohol disorders of epidemic proportion. Consider the following:
A recent prominent study found that 1 in every 8 Americans struggles with alcohol abuse…that’s over 30 Million people. Furthermore, the study points out that the problem is getting worse - WAY worse. For the 10-year period stretching 2002/2003 to 2012/2013 alcohol use disorders (AUD’s) in the United States increased a staggering 50%. For certain groups the numbers are catastrophic. Women have seen an 84% increase in AUD’s, African Americans 92.8%, and those over 65 years old 106.7%. The numbers are simply mind-boggling.
Alcohol is a very dangerous and highly addictive substance, like sugar or cocaine. And yet almost no one talks about this issue. As a country, we can barely hold a dialogue on opioid addiction, let alone booze. But whether you drink or not and whether you have a problem or not, we as a society desperately need to address the wide spread issues around addiction that have paralyzed our way of modern life. We need to dig deep and talk about real solutions to an in depth and layered problem. As for alcohol, here are some starting points:
Alcohol should be feared, controlled, and demystified. Tighter regulation in marketing of alcohol is needed while at the same time we need to address the moral tension surrounding booze and demystify alcohol consumption. Said another way, alcohol is too tightly regulated, and yet not regulated enough. Let me explain:
When I was in High School, I studied abroad in Germany. One of the first things us American kids did was get hammered on a tour of a brewery. Our teenage German counterparts scratched their heads and laughed at us “Amis” as we stumbled around town half-drunk at almost every opportunity while they calmly enjoyed a glass of wine or sipped on a beer with composure.
In Europe, alcohol is also a cultural norm like it is in the States and most other parts of the world. It’s a customary delicacy and part of the social construct. The difference is that generally speaking, they have demystified it. Kids drink wine at dinner with their parents. As they do with the topic of sex, Europeans talk openly about alcohol and its role in society. It’s amazing what happens when you don’t put something on a pedestal or classify it as a forbidden fruit. Alcohol, like sex, while natural and pleasurable for many, can also ruin your life. It deserves to be positioned as such.
In the UK, when pubs previously had a mandatory cut off time of 11pm, binge drinking was a massive problem. With the Brits known propensity to party, allowing citizens to drink more after hours (which came into effect in 2005) seemed like lunacy and a surefire way to cause catastrophic societal problems. But studies show that that hasn’t been the case. The point being, that restricting alcohol consumption legally or morally isn’t the way to solve the dilemma. To cite an example from personal experience: I went to a private Catholic University and some kids had come from super strict upbringings where they had never been exposed to drinking – they were the first ones to drop out of college from partying.
To cite another glaring example is to highlight one of the colossal policy failures in our nation’s history. The 18th amendment, which forbid the sale and use of alcohol, ushered in the prohibition era with devastating and unintended consequences. We’ve seen the results of mass regulation in making a widely used product illegal. It didn’t, doesn’t, and wouldn’t work. But, I would also argue that the pendulum has swung the other way. Like a car or gun, alcohol is a potential deadly weapon and needs to be tightly regulated, at least when it comes to certain aspects like marketing.
Alcohol is so heavily mass marketed that it’s hard to go anywhere at any time without seeing a consumer driven message that tells you that it’s sexy, relaxing, fun, cool, or desirable to drink. Let me ask you a question - is it cool to smoke? It certainly used to be. But then people woke up and realized that smoking, while pleasurable to some, also ruins and ends lives.
Remember Joe Camel? Odds are you don’t because you haven’t seen Joe around for 20 years.
Here’s the story - Joe Camel was cool. How do I know? Because he wore tuxedos, hip sunglasses, and smoked Camels. All well and good until the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 1991 stating that by age six, nearly as many kids could identify Joe Camel as Mickey Mouse!!! Bye bye Joe.
In 1997 RJR gave up the Joe Camel campaign and with it the world of cigarette advertising has largely gone underground. But ultimately, what is the difference between Joe Camel and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” telling you to drink Dos Equis? The connotation in almost all alcohol advertising is that drinking is cool. It isn’t.
Smoking kills and potentially destroys careers and relationships. Alcohol is kind of like that as well. If you use it like a delicacy, great. I sure do and enjoy the taste thoroughly. But I’m not ‘cool’ because I like to party, and neither are you. To that end, alcohol advertising and marketing should be heavily regulated in terms of the messages they send, where and when they send them, and who they send them to. At the very least, to counteract the vast onslaught of direct to consumer advertising, warning labels, public service announcements, and educational campaigns should be much more prominent and heavily visible.
Drinking is not cool or glamorous and despite popular notions, alcohol is certainly not good for you or your performance. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning concluded that “alcohol should not be ingested after resistance exercise (RE) as this ingestion could potentially hamper the desired muscular adaptations.” Essentially, booze inhibits your body’s ability to repair muscle and has a negative effect on the water balance at the cellular level. Of course, this is just one negative adaptation to ‘performance.’ Alcohol is also a diuretic and dehydrates you, puts stress on your kidneys and liver, negatively affects sleep, slows your reaction time, interferes with lactic acid breakdown, impairs your judgement, and increases your risk for injury, death, and disease…other than that, it’s great!
I drink. Odds are you do as well. I like my craft beer and even an occasional glass of bourbon. I look forward to Friday night and relaxing over dinner with an adult beverage. But just because I like something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respected, feared, and tightly controlled. And just because something isn’t currently harmful to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to be.
It may sound hypocritical for an author who is known to enjoy a beer to talk about the dangers of alcohol, but the point isn’t to demonize all alcohol consumption, all the time. The point is to raise awareness of a very serious public health issue and the vast potential negative consequences associated with drinking.
The time has come to engage in a real (albeit very unpopular) dialogue about alcohol treatment, recovery, regulation, marketing, and corporate responsibility. Instead of just scratching our heads about why people are becoming increasingly addicted to painkillers, booze, heroin, social media, processed foods, and so forth, we need to start asking ‘why?’ We are increasingly unhappy, stressed, and depressed as a society. As a result, we are increasingly addicted. It’s time to address this epidemic before it’s a pandemic. We all have a role to play. We need to talk.