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The Dark Side Of The Booze — Dramming
Post image for The Dark Side Of The Booze

The Dark Side Of The Booze

by Oliver Klimek on August 29, 2014

Last week I wrote about the impact that alcoholic drinks have on our enivronment, on our world as a whole. I already hinted to it there, this article will deal with the impact that alcoholic drinks have on ourselves, each and everyone of us. The two are flip sides of the same coin, two issues often overlooked or ignored.

The environmental aspect of alcohol is fairly abstract, so it is no wonder that this topic hardly ever shows up in discussions. Its effects on our bodies evidently are much more direct, we can feel them easily after we’ve had a few; and the discussions about the consumption of alcohol in society at large have always been numerous and heated. But inisde the ethanol universe there is not really so much talk about the risks and dangers that come with drinking alcohol.

Defining the Problems

Ehthanol is a toxic substance. In large doses it is lethal, in smaller doses it is a psychoactive drug which is the reason for its popularity over thousands of years. In addition to its immediate physiological effets on the body, alcohol also can have long-term effects that have the potential to seriously damage our health, such as cirrhosis of the liver or various cancer types. Other long-term effects are still a matter of debate, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

To assess the dangers of alcohol we have to look separately at three different factors: its immediate effects of intoxication, its potential for addiction and its long-term effects on personal health. In all of these it is very difficult if not impossible to draw a definitive line between “acceptable” and “bad”. This makes alcohol a properly devious substance in case of abuse because it has the potential to ruin your life in multiple ways.

Light intoxication is essentially harmless as long as you refrain from driving a car and its effects, especially a brightened mood, are generally considered as pleasant. Things only start to become difficult when people drink more than they can take. Depending on your physical disposition and your personality uglier things can happen then, from vomiting to violence, from aggressiveness to complete loss of control. Currently this is the most discussed type of alcohol abuse, subsummed under the term binge drinking. Its negative effects are the most direct ones, so it is logical that they are regarded as most important to deal with.

But we must not make the mistake to confuse binge drinking, even it it is done repeatedly, with alcoholism. It is perfectly possible to frequently drink large quantities until full intoxication without ever becoming addicted. Addiction only kicks in when intoxication is not only wanted anymore but needed. It is a qualitative aspect and not necessarily correlated with quantity. If you feel you need to drink to function properly in your life, this should be regarded as a dangerous warning signal. Classically it is “drinking to forget” that often causes behavioural addiction, the feeling of not being able to cope with reality without the mood-enhancing qualites of alcohol, then leading further to the final stage of physical addiction when the body actually needs alcohol to function on a chemical basis. Alcoholism in its early stages can often be hidden from others, but if it is not treated, the risk of ruining one’s life and one’s livelihood becomes greater and greater.

When alcohol is consumed in small amounts also the health risks are minimal to non-existant. There is even evidence that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis is healthier than complete abstinence.

nejm-alcohol

There are numerous studies and meta-studies that show a J-shaped curve for mortalitly rates or relative risks in dependence from alcohol consumption. Only when consumption goes up significantly (6 or more standard drinks a day in the above example) the risk becomes greater than for abstinence. Here is another graph showing the relative risk of coronary heart disease vs. alcohol consumption in grams per day:

mortality

The break even point here is at about 80 grams of pure alcohol a day (the dotted lines are the confidence intervals of the study). This is pretty exactly the amount of alcohol in an entire botte of wine with 12% ABV. Only for conditions that are clearly alcohol related this J-shaped curve does not apply. Unsuprisingly the correlation between consumption and risk is much more direct here.

Conclusions

What to make of all this? I have already touched the subject in my recent Am I A Binge Drinker? article. The official guidelines for moderate drinking usually take the minimum of this J-shaped curve for their recommendations, which is about 20 grams per day. So far so good. But then they define anything beyond that point as “heavy drinking” or even “binge drinking” which of course is quite nonsensical. With this terminology a “heavy drinking” lifestyle can still be healthier overall than abstinence.

Instead of focussing on silly grams per day values the fight against alcohol abuse should concentrate on preventing “real” binge drinking and the mindset that is behind abominations like this:

drinkinggames

A key point for me in tackling this issue is proper education about the effects of alcohol. Well-founded knowledge about the risks and dangers of alcohol needs to be “implanted into the brains” of kids as early as possible. Parents and teachers are on the forefront here, but good education about alcohol needs to strike a balance between scaremongering and trivialization. Probably the most important – and arguably the most difficult – thing here is to learn when to stop and how to oppose peer pressure, to realize that you are not a coward when you say no but that you are actually smart.

Of course the alcohol industry has a big responsibility here too. I do not advocate any form of alcohol advertising ban or other prohibitive policies, though. We are confronted with alcohol advertising already as children. While most children do have a sense that alcohol can be a dangerous thing, the subliminal messages conveyed by advertising are stored away in the back of our brains.

One of the classic messages of alcohol advertising is “booze is fun”: beautiful happy people having a good time drinking alcohol. It would be foolish to deny that alcohol consumption indeed has a fun aspect. Alcohol has been enjoyed as a “social lubricant” for ages and there is nothing wrong with that in principle. But still, advertising it this way is risky because with the wrong mindset it can be interpreted as “Drinking alcohol is fun. Alcohol gets you drunk. So it is fun to get hammered.”

Another example for dangerous advertising is to display alcohol as your friend that helps you to overcome problems. It is exactly this what is the mechanism behind many cases of alcohol addiction. The “Drink Responsibly” usually found in the fine print is very unlikely to be even noticed and should not serve as an excuse for the advertisers to white-wash themselves from their responsibility. Also age checks on websites are noting more than a fig leaf that says “we are aware that minors should not drink alcohol”.

It is good that today there are initiatives like the Portman Group or DISCUS that try to keep the alcohol industry from publishing questionable advertisements. But the coverage is not perfect and ever so often we see ads that are objectionable in one or the other way. Also sexism and degradation or objectification of women are “popular” topics in this respect. Combine strong intoxication with aggressiveness and the mindset of women being readily available for the desire of men, and you can imagine what this can lead to.

How about the responsibility of us who write and blog about whisky then? For example could it be that a former alcoholic might be tempted to drink again by reading our enthusiastic reports about magnificent wines, beers or spirits? The question is certainly valid, but here things really start to become blurry.  Of course not only industry and media have a responsibility to not make alcohol appear overly attractive, but also the indivuals themselves are responsible for what they do. Dry alcoholics need to learn the pitfalls that they will encounter, or otherwise they would risk a relapse anytime they go into a supermarket and see the shelves bending from booze.

In summary I believe a combination of better education and increased sensibility in promotion is the best way to deal with the dangers that come with the consumption of alcoholic drinks. History has taught us that prohibition is not the right way to do it, so I don’t believe that tightening of drinking laws would have much of a benefitial effect, except maybe for localized alcohol bans in places that have shown to be problematic.

PS: This topic was brought up in the same Facebook discussion which resulted in the Enviromental Impact article. This time the credits go to Shane Helmick who runs the How to Drink Whisky blog.

Picture: CarbonNYC via flickr

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Bendavid August 30, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Oliver, Great write up!
Responsible drinking is an important issue that need to be addressed, and we need to be in the forefront of it.
Michael

Reply

Björn Scholz September 17, 2014 at 4:41 am

What a surprise you did not get any comments on this subject…….
Beside that fact, a good subject to discuss!!!
And as you state a tabu subject.
Since I have experience of working with people who had problems with drugs I can relate to that.
So the conclusion are take care of you and your friends!

Reply

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