Alcohol: The Last, and Deadliest, Acceptable Drug

The UK government has considered graphic alcohol warning labels to combat

The UK government has considered graphic alcohol warning labels to combat “widespread public ignorance” on its harms.

Last week, I posted a letter to the editor of mine that had appeared in the National Post, in the midst of a discussion of the tragic rape-driven deaths of teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia and Audrie Pott in California. In both cases, the perpetrators and victims were said to be intoxicated. As I suggested in my letter, perhaps some of the blame ought to fall to all of us, who do little to curb the use of alcohol.

Somehow it didn’t surprise us when it turned out that these rapes of fifteen year-olds had happened under the influence of alcohol. In fact, 40% of violent crimes in the US are alcohol related, according to the US Department of Justice. Alcohol kills around 100,000 people in the US every year, and around 2,500,000 globally. And only a small proportion of these deaths (around 13.5%) are drunk driving deaths–the majority of alcohol deaths come from liver damage, strokes, overdose, murders, suicides, and accidents spurred by intoxication. In addition to causing death, alcohol consumption can weaken families through addiction and physical abuse, become a replacement for healthy social entertainment and reduce workplace productivity. No wonder a study published in an established medical journal labelled alcohol the fourth most harmful drug to the user, ahead of tobacco, and the most harmful drug to others, making it the most harmful drug overall:

Alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK, according to the Lancet.

Alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK, according to the Lancet.

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture. Drug use has fallen in our society over the last few decades. After being awakened to the severe long-term health effects of tobacco and detrimental effects of secondhand smoke, especially on children, we’ve taken a number of bold steps to curb tobacco use. Federal and regional governments have banned most forms of tobacco advertising, mandated large warning labels on packaging, and undertaken major public health campaigns to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. Today tobacco is stigmatized, use has plummeted, and few children are raised with the assumption that cigarette use is simply a lifestyle choice. In elementary school, I was taught that if you smoked, you’d get lung cancer. Adults were very direct in telling us not to smoke. Very few people in my peer group even considered doing something so unwise.

However, we’ve all been cowards when it comes to combating alcohol, despite the fact that the social costs of alcohol fall on everyone, users and non-users alike. While certain alcohol related behaviors are stigmatized, including drunk driving and drinking while pregnant, liberal alcohol use is accepted by just about everyone. By their mid-teens, when most young people start drinking alcohol, teenagers have been exposed to casual alcohol use by their parents and other trusted adults, as well as to thousands of beer and liquor advertisements. And while most teens are likely aware of the dangers of impaired driving, they’ve probably been taught very little about alcoholism, liver damage, impaired judgment, alcohol-induced rape and violence, stroke and heart disease. How can anyone use a drug responsibly without a thorough education in its dangers?

I’ll admit my bias: as a Mormon, I don’t use alcohol, and I find it hard to sympathize with the culture surrounding it. But I’m not a radical. I emphatically do not promote the prohibition of alcohol. History teaches us that banning alcohol causes more harm than good. What I do promote are some of the same measures that have been taken to reduce tobacco use: graphic warnings on labels, severe restrictions on alcohol advertising and public health campaigns to educate everyone, especially young people, about the dangers of alcohol. These measures wouldn’t diminish the ability of responsible alcohol drinkers to purchase and use alcohol legally, but the demand for the drug would certainly fall, as would the number of crimes and deaths to which it contributes. We could expect that the alcohol industry would fight these measures, just as the tobacco industry fought similar measures in decades past.

The most realistic first step is probably mandating warnings on alcohol labels. The US federal government and a few Canadian jurisdictions already require small warnings on labels. These warnings are good, but they’re not very direct, and they’re small enough to ignore, unlike tobacco warnings. In 2005, Parliament considered a bill to require warnings across Canada, but the government fell before the bill could be taken to a vote. If you feel the same way I do, consider sending a letter to the federal Health Minister if you live in Canada, or to the FDA, Department of Health and Human Services, or your congressional representative in the US, and encourage them to promote warning labels on alcohol.

Moving Beyond a “Rape Culture”

I don’t know what’s possessing me to take sides on controversial issues lately. In lieu of a full entry, here’s a letter of mine that was printed in the National Post today:

Moving beyond a ‘rape culture’

Re: Paying the price for a ‘Hook-Up’ culture, Barbara Kay, April 11.

What defines rape culture is the act of rape itself. Rape is an abhorrent thing for which there is no excuse. The word “culture,” though, necessarily involves context.

The context of rape is boys (and men) who are used to speaking and thinking in lustful, objectifying terms. Another part of this culture is the assumption that alcohol should be part of every social gathering.

Let’s be clear: The girls who were assaulted do not deserve any blame, even if they were drinking. It is not their fault that the adults in our society told them, through words and examples, that alcohol is OK.

I believe our society will eventually have the courage to give up alcohol, like it is giving up tobacco. I believe men can learn to talk about women without talking about sex. I also believe partying can be replaced by better forms of entertainment.

But until then, I pray that the innocent will be protected — from rape and from the selfish culture that surrounds it.

Margaret Thatcher: Old-Fashioned Feminist?

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

The most powerful woman of the twentieth century died this week, and she left a trail of ideological disarray behind her. Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, by all accounts asserted her equality with the men around her, but her methods emphatically were not those of “women’s libbers,” as she derisively called them. Thatcher famously claimed that she owed nothing to modern feminism. This clash of a female politician with woman’s rights advocates makes clear that in Western thought, there are two distinct strands of feminism.

Feminism in its roots is a doctrine of equality between men and women. The early feminist movement led to female suffrage, property and contract rights for women and reduced misogynistic violence. Today, the equality of women and men is mostly accepted in the West, at least in our minds and laws. With very few exceptions, it is now legal (while admittedly not always easy) for a woman to do the same things it is legal for a man to do.

If this is feminism, then Thatcher was a feminist. She stepped over the deep-rooted masculine wall of the Conservatives to win their leadership, and strode confidently into place as the most powerful person in Britain. She was not ashamed to have power, or to love it. If there was any question as to whether she believed in equality, it was at the expense of men, whom she sometimes belittled as indecisive and weak.

But Thatcher was not a feminist–not in the modern sense. By the time she broke the glass ceiling, the movement had moved on. They didn’t want her, and she didn’t want them. In fact, with the notable exceptions of Hillary Clinton and arguably Julia Gillard, most women politicians are disliked by feminists, despite their achievements. If the treatment of recent prominent female politicians in the US is any indication, modern feminists aren’t fighting so much for the advancement of women as they are for the advancement of modern feminist ideology.

Rather than promoting successful women, feminism today seems to revolve around grievances. In the semantic game of academic feminism it is a victory enough to identify an errant insensitive word by a non-feminist, that could in isolation offend someone, or perhaps worse, suggest that men and women are not the same creatures. In the striving for indiscriminateness that characterizes the left, feminism threatens to scrape away womanhood from women, reducing gender to a variable in the imagined equations of identity politics.

In an article for the National Post, writer Barbara Kay recently promoted a kind of “family feminism,” the kind of feminism she believes impelled women’s rights activists like Hannah More and Frances Willard in prior centuries, where feminism has its roots. While later feminists would argue for a normless female identity independent of gender roles, these women believed that womanhood was not fully expressed when stripped of its familial context. Unfortunately, the feminist movement has turned against this sort of feminism, accusing modern “family feminists” of blithely upholding traditional gender roles and patriarchy.

But perhaps family feminism has a place in the movement. In her article, Kay notes, “More than 70% of American women today reject the “feminist” label, partly because, in Hof Summers’ words, “they don’t want to be liberated from their womanhood.”” Perhaps this quiet majority of women embraces the classical feminism of the suffragettes, the feminism that does not make excuses or accusations, the feminism that promotes women in order to strengthen the families and societies of which they are a part.