America Has a Drinking Problem

June 3, 2021

A little alcohol can boost creativity and strengthen social ties. But there’s nothing moderate, or convivial, about the way many Americans drink today.

Few things are more American than drinking heavily. But worrying about how heavily other Americans are drinking is one of them.

The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because, the crew feared, the Pilgrims were going through the beer too quickly. The ship had been headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, until its sailors (who, like most Europeans of that time, preferred beer to water) panicked at the possibility of running out before they got home, and threatened mutiny. And so the Pilgrims were kicked ashore, short of their intended destination and beerless.

William Bradford complained bitterly about the latter in his diary that winter, which is really saying something when you consider what trouble the group was in. (Barely half would survive until spring.) Before long, they were not only making their own beer but also importing wine and liquor. Still, within a couple of generations, Puritans like Cotton Mather were warning that a “flood of RUM” could “overwhelm all good Order among us.”

George Washington first won elected office, in 1758, by getting voters soused. (He is said to have given them 144 gallons of alcohol, enough to win him 307 votes and a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.) During the Revolutionary War, he used the same tactic to keep troops happy, and he later became one of the country’s leading whiskey distillers. But he nonetheless took to moralizing when it came to other people’s drinking, which in 1789 he called “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country.”

Hypocritical though he was, Washington had a point. The new country was on a bender, and its drinking would only increase in the years that followed. By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes. Americans tend to drink in more dysfunctional ways than people in other societies, only to become judgmental about nearly any drinking at all. Again and again, an era of overindulgence begets an era of renunciation: Binge, abstain. Binge, abstain.

Right now we are lurching into another of our periodic crises over drinking, and both tendencies are on display at once. Since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

Before the pandemic, some aspects of this shift seemed sort of fun, as long as you didn’t think about them too hard. In the 20th century, you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to “shop ’n’ sip,” and carts with cup holders.

Actual bars have decreased in number, but drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be: Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol. Moms carry coffee mugs that say things like This Might Be Wine, though for discreet day-drinking, the better move may be one of the new hard seltzers, a watered-down malt liquor dressed up—for precisely this purpose—as a natural soda.

Even before COVID-19 arrived on our shores, the consequences of all this were catching up with us. From 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled, to more than 70,000 a year—making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy. These numbers are likely to get worse: During the pandemic, frequency of drinking rose, as did sales of hard liquor. By this February, nearly a quarter of Americans said they’d drunk more over the past year as a means of coping with stress.

Explaining these trends is hard; they defy so many recent expectations. Not long ago, Millennials were touted as the driest generation—they didn’t drink much as teenagers, they were “sober curious,” they were so admirably focused on being well—and yet here they are day-drinking White Claw and dying of cirrhosis at record rates. Nor does any of this appear to be an inevitable response to 21st-century life: Other countries with deeply entrenched drinking problems, among them Britain and Russia, have seen alcohol use drop in recent years.

In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.

Media coverage, meanwhile, has swung from cheerfully overselling the (now disputed) health benefits of wine to screeching that no amount of alcohol is safe, ever; it might give you cancer and it will certainly make you die before your time. But even those who are listening appear to be responding in erratic and contradictory ways. Some of my own friends—mostly 30- or 40-something women, a group with a particularly sharp uptick in drinking—regularly declare that they’re taking an extended break from drinking, only to fall off the wagon immediately.

One went from extolling the benefits of Dry January in one breath to telling me a funny story about hangover-cure IV bags in the next. A number of us share the same (wonderful) doctor, and after our annual physicals, we compare notes about the ever nudgier questions she asks about alcohol. “Maybe save wine for the weekend?” she suggests with a cheer so forced she might as well be saying, “Maybe you don’t need to drive nails into your skull every day?”

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