For the Alcoholics

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Millions of people struggle with alcohol dependence.

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Millions of people struggle with alcohol dependence.

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!

6 thoughts on “For the Alcoholics

  1. I have thought about similar things recently because, through my husband’s alcoholism, I too have discovered that everyone knows someone who’s life is significantly impacted by alcohol use. What scares me in the numbers you put up is that I immediately wonder where they got them – how were they gathered, what criteria did they use, was it self reporting? I think the biggest issue is that people do not realize what alcoholism is. A majority of people still think that to be an alcoholic means that you are homeless, can’t hold a job, and spend your days sitting on a bar stool or swigging out of a paper bag. Because of this, they don’t see that drinking every weekend until you are passed out on the floor is a problem, or think that having a few beers (or 10 or 12) every night is ok. The problem, in my estimation, is that we, as a society, have made everything all about the drinking. If you manage to escape the highschool party scene, drinking in college is a given – a right of passage. Then you get into the working world and we have drinks at lunch, drinks after work, drinks with dinner, drinks when we get home for a nightcap. We drink to celebrate, to commiserate, to forget our pain, and to console. I know many people who, though they are not alcoholics in the typical sense, could not imagine getting together for a social gathering without including alcohol. So, we insist on having alcohol for every possible occasion, but then as soon as someone’s life falls apart, they are weak. The fingers point, the heads wag, and voices whisper behind hands. “I had no idea. Guess some people just can’t handle it. They just don’t know how to stop.” We, as a society, create the monster, and then shame it for existing. So, yeah, I really don’t think warning labels are going to help much. I agree that the “Drink Responsibly” slogans are useless though and think that what we really need is more education on what alcoholism is, what it looks like, and what it does to people and families. I don’t know that we’ll ever be rid of it completely, but I think we could do a lot more to prevent it.

    • Thanks so much for your perspective. I haven’t had the experience of a family member struggle with alcoholism. I think it’s really important for voices like yours to be heard.

      I really liked this: “We, as a society, create the monster, and then shame it for existing.” There’s a sense of social responsibility that we’ve ignored. We can’t treat alcohol as simply a lifestyle choice, because no drug causes more harm to our society.

      As far as whether warning labels would help or not, no one can be sure, but the evidence I’ve seen suggests that there would be a modest, but real, fall in demand for alcohol. Combined with a ban on alcohol advertising and extensive public education about alcohol, public policy like this could make a difference. We can look to the example of tobacco: use of tobacco has fallen without prohibition because of these sorts of policies. I’ve written a number of posts on alcohol and possible ways to address it over the last few months if you’re interested in looking back and reading.

  2. It’s interesting and it would be nice if it worked. I’m not sure if you can compare it to tobacco use though because, at the same time as the warning labels have gone into use, the cost of cigarettes has gone up exponentially. When I first smoked back in 1987, I could get a pack of Marlboro’s for $1.50. Now, what is it, $5-7? I’m sure warning labels had an impact, but I don’t know how you can discern what had the greater effect – warnings or cost/taxes. I think most people have understood for a long time how harmful tobacco can be (although I could make an argument about what is actually harmful, the tobacco or the chemicals they put in the cigarettes). I know I did, but I still smoked for 20 years. It really took the cost going up and up before I decided to quit. Maybe we just need to tax it more? Yikes! I can here the bar owners screaming already!! lol I definitely agree with you on the other things – ban on advertising, education, etc. When I have a chance I’ll look back at your articles. Truly, the only way to bring things out of the dark corners is to get it out into the light and talk about it. Like so many other things, when it stops being a secret taboo, we might start making some headway against it.

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