What do these cartoons have in common?
They all send a message that drinking is fun, actually not just fun, needed to cope with today’s world. The message is so prevalent, so strongly shared in social media, on TV, in movies and in our social lives that we barely take notice. We barely stop to think that something might be wrong with it.
This is not an easy post to write, as it feels like swimming against a strong current. Let me start with my own experience on the subject. My college years were all alcohol-free and the friends I hung out at the time with were not interested in drinking. Then I started dating the man who became my first husband. He absolutely loved wine and other libations. I tried my first glass of wine around age 24; I could take it or leave it as far as taste was concerned, but I embraced the practice for the fun aspects that came with it. Drinking became a part of my social life and I never worried about it. Except for having to deal with the eventual drunk friend or relative, but they ended up more as harmless annoyances, nothing I was overly concerned with. Plus, “they” were not “me”, so all was fine in my own Private Idaho.
In the past few years, I noticed that my tolerance for alcohol started to sharply decrease. Whereas in the past I could indulge in a mixed drink before dinner, then a glass or two of wine with my meal, and still have a normal morning next day, as I got older doing the same caused a hangover that pretty much ruined my next day. Two glasses of wine with dinner became the maximum I can drink, but sometimes even that makes me a bit unwell. You might say “… so what? Stick with one glass and don’t worry about it.” But, the realization of how harmful just a little more might be for my body got me thinking. Could drinking – even at a moderate level – be doing me more harm than good? How could I be sure? Shouldn’t I listen to the signs my body kept sending me? I also started to question my reasons for drinking. I decided to go on a personal experiment and quit drinking for a couple of months. While doing so it became evident the power of the alcohol industry. I read a lot on the subject, from the benefits of drinking (heavily shared around in social media) to its negative side-effects (barely mentioned in those venues), and about the advertising strategies and profits of the alcohol industry. And now here I am to share my thoughts.
I don’t intend to turn myself or anyone else into a teetotaler. Or to be judgmental about those who drink a little or a lot. I simply hope that we can all be more attentive to – and perhaps take a stance against – the constant bombardment of alcohol advertising, which, by the way, now heavily targets women. It portrays alcohol as a harmless substance, supposed to make your life fun and sophisticated. It is supposed to make you tolerate the stresses of your day, and surf more smoothly through social interactions, especially if they feel awkward to start with. The alcohol industry clearly prefers to place the burden of any negative effect of drinking on the shoulders of the “bad drinkers.” They, the pitiful alcoholics. We all subscribe to this view, by the way. That is neither fair nor accurate. In reality, the problems reside on the substance itself. Alcohol is a toxin that your body immediately needs to degrade once you ingest it. No matter how little you drink, your liver works extra to deal with it. Alcohol is addictive (not just for alcoholics), and as far as its danger ranking for society, it is worse than heroine and other illicit drugs (on a scale of 100, alcohol ranks 72, whereas heroine ranks 55 and crack 54, see this article). In reality, moderate drinking, the kind that advocates portray as having positive effects on the cardiovascular system, is not what many drinkers are doing, particularly us women. Keep in mind that for women, moderate drinking is considered a maximum of 5 ounces of wine per day and even such low-level is a matter of debate. Anything more and the risks outweigh the benefits. Women metabolize alcohol less efficiently than men, and that is not simply an effect of body mass. Often couples (yours truly included) will happily share a bottle of wine with their dinner in the name of pleasure and supposed health benefits. We keep doing it, while mentally assembling all the arguments that make it sound like a risk-free thing. And the arguments seem to make sense. Come to think of it, the cartoons and funny jokes finally place women as equals with men on the drinking stage. Wow, that is some sociological victory! 😉
I know that many people will read my post and react against it, claiming “I don’t have/see a problem.” True, probably you don’t. But, our society does. Under age drinking is another serious problem made harder to deal with due to the influence of social media that enables advertisement by peers without any regulation (reviewed here). So, yes, maybe you are not affected directly by it. But someone you love might be. Maybe a son or a daughter, who at some point will be exposed to the Siren’s Song of the alcohol industry, that actually relies on the very existence of alcoholics for most of their profit. Kids will go to college, turn 21, and in the US they will encounter the tradition of binge drinking. Maybe your own kids won’t partake, but they may suffer the consequences of being around those who do. No matter our own personal experience, our control and confidence in our own judgement, we should not close our eyes to the careless and irresponsible advertisement of drinking that happens today. Not only direct, but also indirect advertisements. I suggest you pay close attention to sitcoms, TV shows in general, and once you do, you will be shocked by the widespread underlying message of drinking as equal to living the good life. Today’s alcohol industry is exactly like the cigarette industry decades ago. We fought against them to stop false advertising, to stop selling the association of smoking with a great time. Why do we grant the alcohol industry a free pass to lie to us? Why do we help their cause by sharing cute jokes and spreading articles that reinforce the fun but look away when scientific data offer a different perspective?
The “responsible drinking” lie. Did you know that alcoholics account for 47% of the profits of alcohol sales? Just think about that for a second. The consequence of this fact is that the industry has no interest in moderate drinking, or in articles that warn about the dangers of drinking. Instead, their goal is to make sure that the proportion of heavy drinkers stays at the current level or even grows to protect their profits. Like everything else, it’s all about the money. They completely disregard a few annoying facts like: alcohol has been linked to about 200 illnesses (World Health Organization, 2014); alcohol is associated with increased risk for cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx (organs that alcohol directly contacts), liver, and breast (National Cancer Institute). Some individuals become addicted to alcohol from the first taste, for reasons not well understood, probably genetics is involved (I could not find precise statistics about it). That’ should be enough to give us all a pause. What if that person is someone you deeply care about? A nephew, a niece, a sibling. Drinking does not make problems go away or life easier. It does not make us happier or more fun and interesting in conversations. However, most people believe that it does (I am not excluding myself, it is a very ingrained belief), and the alcohol industry is more than willing to feed those beliefs. Why wouldn’t they? It keeps their sales up.
So, what’s my point? My main message is that alcohol demands more attention and respect for what it really is: a toxin with addictive properties. Approach it with the caution it deserves. Consider real instead of pseudo-moderation. Talk to your kids about it in those terms. Be aware of the false aura behind it, even if you think you are totally immune to it. You may want to look into the role that drinking has in your own life. Does it help you deal with stress … is that the way you’d like your kids to face stress too? Do you need it to have fun socially … is that the way you’d like your kids to approach it too? We must acknowledge and deal with the darker side of drinking in honest terms. I’ve had my share of encounters with people I admire, respect and love, but noticed with some sadness that they turn into different versions of themselves when drinking. Sometimes they become overly argumentative, aggressive or depressed, only because they drank over a certain threshold. Alcohol-induced happiness can be fleeting. And what comes after ranges from mildly annoying to sad, to ugly, all the way up to dangerous. Drinking and driving is one example, as are arguments, fights, black outs, the list is long, you get the picture. I once said things I regretted, because wine made me lose some self-control. It involved politics and interactions with a conservative couple. Even today, 15 years later, I don’t like to remember that evening. But still, that episode made me feel the dark side beneath my own skin.
Now back to my personal experiment. For starters, t shocked me how much better I felt once I stopped having alcohol with dinner, particularly considering that I didn’t drink that much and not even every evening. Gone was a persistent, low-level headache that forced me to take a couple of aspirins a few times a week. Gone was waking up in the morning with bags and puffiness under my eyes, and a sort of pale complexion. Lastly, I have renewed energy late at night, and sleep better too. Those are nice, unexpected bonuses. Because I get up early, I thought that being exhausted by 10 pm was normal. Feeling overall quite a bit better makes it trickier to justify going back to drinking. For the time being I am surfing through these new waters, with a “naked” mind. Honestly, I don’t know what I will do in the long run. I believe in moderation for everything, so quitting alcohol forever seems too drastic and not at all what I had in mind when I started my “experiment.” The bottom line is, I am conflicted and struggling to find my own balance. That’s all I can say for now. So, if you wanted all the answers, I am sorry to disappoint you, I don’t have them. Not yet, that is…
But I am not at all conflicted about my views on the alcohol industry and the need to fight against it. All alcohol bottles should come with better warning labels, just as cigarettes now do, more than “Alcohol…may cause health problems.” The health warnings should be as bold and restrictive as they are for cigarettes. The more aware we become, the less alcohol will harm us as a society.
To close this post, I will share two links. One takes you to a book that is sure to help people struggling with alcoholism or who have a hard time moderating their consumption. It is called, This Naked Mind, by Annie Grace. Even if you drink in moderation, the book is worth reading. The second link takes you to an article in The Washington Post, that I read when I was about 75% done writing this post. I was pleasantly surprised to see my views confirmed by others much more qualified than me to talk about the subject. I suggest you at least watch the short video included in the article, pretty interesting, she is quite articulate.
And just to end on a happier note, here is a pretty festive drink. It has a negligible amount of alcohol with the drops of bitters, but they add a nice kick to the taste. Do not omit them.
CRANBERRY BLISS: Place a few glass cubes inside a tall glass. Add 1/4 of pure cranberry juice, 5 drops of bitters (any kind you like, Angostura for instance), fill the glass with 3/4 sparkling water. Drink and enjoy!
ONE YEAR AGO: Candy Cane Cookies
TWO YEARS AGO: Macarons: Much better with a friend
THREE YEARS AGO: Our Mexican Holiday Dinner