There is a plague that has become more real to me over the last few years, as I have met more and more people who have been affected by alcohol dependence. According to the World Health Organization, 6.1% of men and 2.8% of women in the US were dependent on alcohol in 2004. In the United Kingdom, 7.5% of men and 2.1% of women were dependent. There was no data for Canada, but if alcohol consumption is a guide, then its rates are comparable. At an adult population of about 25 million in Canada, we can guess reasonably that around a million people in Canada are dependent on alcohol. Something like 10 million Americans and 2 million Britons are affected.
The figures are staggering. When numbers become this large, it is impossible to directly comprehend their size. What the data implies statistically, however, is the virtual certainty that you know at least one person who is struggling with alcohol dependence. It is an affliction as ubiquitous as major diseases, and far more pervasive than better publicized terrors. You may or may not know anyone who has been shot, or anyone who is addicted to street drugs, but you know people who are dependent on alcohol.
What should be more unsettling is the fact that none of these millions ever intended to become dependent on alcohol. To a significant extent, humans are unable to control their relationship with the drug. And what is becoming clearer is that by nature, some people are far more prone than others to addiction. Recovered alcoholics often learn that any amount of alcohol is too much; that complete abstinence is the only way to avoid falling again into the trap of dependence.
If this is the case, then for many people, the advice to “drink responsibly” isn’t appropriate. If you have the disposition of an alcoholic, then whether you drink responsibly or irresponsibly, you’re at high risk of becoming dependent. The difference between an alcoholic and a drinker isn’t that the alcoholic is less moral or less responsible–it’s that the alcoholic is less able to bear the poison. Alcoholism is better seen as a disease than as a moral failure.
So who, if anyone, deserves the blame? The famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis once commented in an offhand way: “It may be the duty of a particular Christian, … at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, … because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.” And Lewis would understand this “inclination”–his brother Warren was an alcoholic for forty years. Apparently his brother’s struggle wasn’t the “particular time” for Lewis to abstain; he was a lifelong, frequent alcohol user. He understood at some level, however, that alcohol is a drug that acts on a society, and not simply on an individual. He recognized a responsibility that may exist to avoid alcohol for the benefit of those for whom it would be debilitating.
Because of the wonderful role models in my life and my particular upbringing, I will gratefully never be required to discover whether I would be an alcoholic. But for most of the millions in our society who have the disease, and for the children so disposed who will be adults in coming years, there is little hope of avoiding the drug and the dependence that will follow. Amidst the alcohol advertisements, mild cautions to drink responsibly, and casual drug use by adults at all levels of society, they will hear few voices saying that alcohol doesn’t need to be part of their lives. Or that perhaps, it shouldn’t be.
There is a way, as a society, to avoid alcoholism, although it is almost unthinkable for most of us. It is to avoid alcohol.
If you think that warnings on alcohol labels and a ban on alcohol advertising would provide balance to the lopsided conversation on alcohol taking place in our society (and there is evidence to suggest that these things would help), please take the time to write Leona Aglukkaq, the federal Health Minister in Canada (or an equivalent official in other countries), through this form. Thank you to those of you who already have!