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A painting of several men drunk around a table.
Two recent studies cast doubt on the idea that social drinking can be beneficial in some settings.
José Malhoa, Wikimedia Commons

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Opinion: Time to treat alcohol like the drug it is

For too long we’ve treated alcohol the way Kate Julian does in her recent Atlantic article — a drug with terrible societal effects but one we cling to because, well, tradition.

True to her headline, “America has a drinking problem,” we do have a problem, and it’s been getting worse. Overall, drinking has increased during the pandemic, especially the consumption of harder liquors and spirits. Women account for a disproportionate share of the increase in alcohol consumption and are more likely than men to turn to drinking to cope with stressful feelings, Julian reports. And today’s statistics are just the top of a trendline that has been climbing for decades.

Americans are unique, Julian writes, in that they tend to drink a lot and to do it alone, which is a relatively recent development. In that sense, many Americans aren’t drinking to make life better; they’re drinking to feel less bad.

Why persist? According to the article, people who drink are happier, and alcohol can “boost creativity and strengthen social ties.” Put another way, drinking may not be great for you, but it can be a shortcut to a desirable end, namely social cohesion.

But a study released last month is not as cavalier. Researchers at the University of Oxford found no amount of alcohol is “safe” for the brain, and “moderate consumption is associated with more widespread adverse effects on the brain than previously recognized.”

The study, which is yet to be peer reviewed, contradicts the idea that social drinking can be healthy, such as a glass or two of wine on the weekend boosting cognitive abilities.

To the authors of the U.K. study, social class is a more probable determinant. Those who drink wine with friends are more likely to be educated and affluent and are therefore more likely to perform well on a memory test after drinking compared to those with less education. And now the science says whatever amount of alcohol is consumed is not going to be kind to the brain.

The findings track with a similar study from 2018 that found the only level of alcohol consumption that minimizes the risks to one’s health is no consumption at all.

All of which is a reminder that we should be treating alcohol like the drug it is.

Data compiled by British drug experts labels alcohol as the most dangerous substance on an index of intoxicants. In a combination of health risks to the user and the damages doled out to society, alcohol beats out heroin, cocaine, meth, tobacco, marijuana and LSD, among others. Yet, it is the easiest of the group to obtain.

Naturally, its availability is likely what keeps it at the top of the list. Unlike tobacco, which has strict regulations for advertising, distribution and packaging, alcohol is easily bought in stores and ubiquitous in advertising. Children can’t watch sports on TV without sitting through multiple beer commercials. Online ads sell drinks targeted to everyone from fraternity bros to middle-aged moms. The only disclaimer is a reminder to drink responsibly.

The nation’s DUI laws also are curiously loose compared to other developed nations. Most states in the U.S. allow a blood-alcohol content of up to 0.08% while driving, whereas Sweden, a country that’s no stranger to booze, limits it to 0.02%. Anything higher than 0.03% gets your driver’s license confiscated.

Far from enacting another prohibition, there are obvious levers the government could pull to align alcohol with its potential for harm. States should adopt stronger DUI limits, for instance, not so much to punish the user but to change the culture of drinking and driving. Utah succeeded in dropping its BAC limit to 0.05%, and despite dire warnings from the alcohol lobby, the sky has not fallen on the tourism industry. According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, the state saw record tourism numbers in 2018, the year after the law was passed.

Placing alcohol under the same restrictions as tobacco in its marketing and distribution is another simple move that could have profound effects, especially among adolescents who get exposed to drinking at impressionable ages.

Supply-side regulation has its limits, though, and there are deeper problems to address that get at the nation’s demand problem. “People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull,” Wendell Berry writes. “We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”

In that regard, the underlying challenge presented in Julian’s Atlantic article is spot on: Our loneliness needs a remedy. The mental and physical effects of isolation are profound; according to some experts, it’s akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Our anxious, stressed and disconnected society needs a way out.

But the only solution is the hard work of rebuilding personal and societal bonds, and no magic potion, alcoholic or not, can make that work any easier.

Christian Sagers is a staff opinion writer for the Deseret News.

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