Alcohol: why won’t we just give it up?

Alcohol is the “golden child” of sinful indulgences. Cigarettes give you cancer; soda rots your teeth. But enjoy that martini! Despite how destructive alcohol can be, drinking – not abstaining – is the socially acceptable choice. Why do we see alcohol as worth the risk?

It’s not because of a lack of data. The data are clear: drinking can be really harmful. For example, in 2021, a record number of Minnesotans died from excessive drinking. Over 1,100, in fact, more than homicides and suicides combined. The state’s alcohol mortality rate has doubled since 2014. What’s more, these numbers don’t even include deaths indirectly tied to alcohol consumption, like drunk driving.

At a national level, from 2015 to 2019, over 33,600 Americans died from causes fully attributable to alcohol, like alcohol dependence. Over 140,500 died from alcohol-related causes, such as various cancers.

Despite these numbers, it used to be common to hear that a glass of red wine was good for your health. Media and science both said so, throwing around buzzwords like the Mediterranean diet, antioxidants, and heart health.

But research shows that’s just not true. At best, any potential health benefit from red wine is minor and you can get the same boost from a good diet. At worst, alcohol is really bad for you.

Alcohol use can lead to injuries and violence. It impairs your cognitive abilities, increasing the risk of car crashes, other accidents, and interpersonal conflicts. It also has significant consequences on your physical body, negatively impacting your heart and liver and increasing the risk of many cancers. More superficially, it’s heavy on calories and light on nutrition.

And yet, drinking is widely accepted, even glorified. Champagne is synonymous with celebration and beer with Sunday football. Unless you abstain for religious reasons or are in recovery, not drinking is the faux pas.

Why won’t we stop drinking, given all we know?

First, alcohol is cultural, and not just in America. People have readily consumed alcohol throughout all of history. It was actually medicinal in early times and sometimes considered safer to drink than water. Nowadays, Italians love their wine, other parts of Europe love their beer, and the Japanese celebrate sake.

Peer pressure – and a desire for social acceptance – is also a compelling force. One survey in the United Kingdom found that 85 percent of participants had been pressured to drink by their friends, with younger folks feeling it most intensely. Another study suggested that this pressure “isn’t [always] malicious and may not even be conscious.” It’s as if it’s simply embedded into our social framework.

But perhaps most importantly, for many, drinking is just fun. People associate alcohol with friends and laughter, and even good old-fashioned rowdiness. In a stressful world, we’re all looking to let off some steam. While using alcohol to cope isn’t healthy, it’s understandable that many appreciate the mood-boosting properties of a couple beers with friends.

All that said, we’d be healthier if we drank less. How to accomplish that though is the trick. Some argue for increasing taxes on alcohol, shown in the past to reduce consumption. Liquor licenses are on the ballot in a few states this November; addressing where we can buy alcohol and what kinds is another approach.

Shifting the social environment could be even more effective. The mocktail scene is taking off and might be here to stay. For health and even environmental reasons, more consumers are looking for nonalcoholic options, but ones that aren’t Grandma’s sparkling cider. With delicious – and fancy – zero-proof drinks available, we might all be won over without even realizing it.

I still enjoy a good gin and tonic and you might like your IPAs. But it might be time we face the music and really think about why we drink at all.

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