17 March 2012

The Future of Alcohol

Alcohol is almost universally acceptable in Western culture, so people investigating the Baha'i Faith are often turned off by the prohibition of alcohol for Baha'is. It also becomes a challenge that young Baha'is have to struggle with as almost all their friends begin social drinking (usually by age 15).

There is a gap in the perceived morality of alcohol, with society believing that moderate drinking is acceptable, healthy, and part of normal life. It should be simple to address the issue of alcohol and determine whether Baha'i teachings are correct to prohibit it. Having a standard that is at variance with society does not discourage Baha'is, because the purpose of religion is to prescribe remedies to the problems that are eating away at society, and the teachings of religion are always at variance with the desires of society (at the time of revelation). If it were otherwise, what good would religion be? It would simply confirm what is commonly understood and not provide any improvement.

If the Baha'i approach is moral, meaning that alcohol is bad for the individual and society, then given enough time there will be a shift away from general acceptance and toward general intolerance. I have an idea about how this will work, and what people can do to move the process forward without being fanatical about it.

First, it is important to review why alcohol is bad (I'll come back to the good). Immoral behavior is easily defined as doing some harm to oneself or society. Let's look at the science behind the issue, and forgive me for not providing extensive references. In the short term, alcohol causes lethargy, confusion, vomiting, stupor, unconsciousness, and even low doses cause impaired memory, impaired reactions, impaired vision, and impaired judgment. In the long term, alcohol promotes heart failure, stroke, cancer, dementia, chemical dependence, cognitive disorders, brain lesions, impaired memory, chronic insomnia, chronic depression, sexual dysfunction, liver disease, a variety of cell damage, and suicide. These are the effects on the person drinking. To the fetus, alcohol conclusively causes a disorder that leaves the baby stunted and distorted with serious brain damage, permanently retarded for its life. To society, alcohol easily destroys families through increased violence, infidelity, and economic hardship. Drunk driving causes a death every hour on average in the United States, and causes a serious injury every minute.

Second, it is important to review the benefits of alcohol. There are several proven health benefits. Namely, a reduced risk of heart disease, but benefits may also include improved mood and sociability. That's a short list. These benefits, according to any number of health organizations, are far outweighed by the negative effects of alcohol and the potential for addiction. Any benefit from alcohol is only gained from small doses (less than two glasses per day), and the same benefits can be obtained from a number of other methods, such as exercise, nutrition, and confidence. Noteworthy doctors have called recommending alcohol, "ridiculous and dangerous". Supporters of alcohol would say that the negative effects come from its abuse by a small minority, but 32% of Americans engage in risky drinking (exceeding weekly or daily limits) and 21% experience at least one of the key problem indicators of alcohol consumption. That means one out of five Americans experience serious alcohol related problems.

With so much to lose and almost nothing to gain, encouraging alcohol consumption should be viewed as immoral. It seems clear that with enough time and experience, this realization will spread to the majority of society. Luckily, we have a great example of how this might work. Thirty years ago cigarettes were being advertised on television; they were socially acceptable, and they were cool. When I was 12 years old in 1993 I remember every single one of my friends smoking cigarettes, but I managed to avoid it. As time wore on, I saw in my lifetime a dramatic and rapid shift in the treatment of cigarettes. Now, they are no longer cool.

It all started in 1970 when Congress banned cigarette advertisements on TV and radio with people smoking in them. They continued with "smokeless" ads, however, until those too were banned in 1986. Throughout the 1990s several campaigns ran anti-smoking ads; my personal favorite was the lady smoking out of a hole in her neck. The nail in that coffin came in 2010 with another law that banned tobacco companies from sponsoring sporting or other cultural events. There became almost nothing those companies could do to promote the use of their product, and anti-smoking ads were hell-bent on removing the coolness from smoking.

The advertising changes laid the groundwork for profound social changes. Once the generality of people realized that it wasn't cool to smoke, and it was killing people by the tens of thousands (including non-smokers), then came the laws restricting its practice. In 1997 my hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, banned smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including bars and restaurants, including within 10 feet of their doors. At the time, this was a dramatic and controversial law, and I believe it made national headlines. Twelve years later, the state of Oregon adopted the same law statewide. Starting in 2003 with New York, states all over the country began adopting some permutation of a statewide ban on cigarette smoking. Currently 39 states carry some kind of ban on public smoking. This shift would have seemed unimaginable while I was growing up and people used the "smoking section" at McDonalds. But the most dramatic shift was toward a social intolerance of cigarettes. It's just not cool anymore. There are no longer movie stars puffing cigarettes on screen. Nationwide, smoking is looked down upon as an unfortunate addiction, even by smokers. One of those friends of mine who started smoking in middle school tried to quit at least a dozen times later on, always unsuccessfully.

With alcohol, there are no laws restricting its advertisement. Well, there are trivial restrictions, such as targeting minors, but nothing close to what is in place for tobacco. The time will soon come when advertisements will not be able to show someone drinking, then the "dry" ads will give way to a ban on TV and radio ads, then campaigns will start to discourage the consumption of alcohol and educate the public on its ill effects. Soon brands will be banned from sponsoring sporting and cultural events and movies will begin to shy away from portraying alcohol as fun. Then the real change will set in, which is the most important one. Alcohol will stop being cool and just part of life. There will be a profound social shift and people will turn towards assisting addicts to rid themselves of the disease. When a few generations pass with social intolerance to alcohol, its demand will dry up along with the big companies that distribute it. Everyone will be better off because of the change.

If the example of cigarettes provides a good model, then it will take 30-40 years from the time advertisements begin getting curbed to where it stops being cool. Currently, there is a self-imposed restriction on showing ads with people drinking. This restriction was forced on tobacco companies in 1970. However, youth exposure to "dry" beer ads has only increased. The average youth sees or hears one advertisement for alcohol every day, and those ads focus on how cool it is to drink alcohol. The total restriction on TV and radio ads will be the first major step in the long process. It is also a crucial step. It will pave the way for a change in social reality and allow a discussion on the real effects of alcohol, which will definitively prove it to be destructive to the individual and society.

Given current attitudes and the level of mass-addiction, I would guess that the restriction on advertising is about 10 years away in the United States. That means at least 40 years until alcohol stops being cool. This will be a long 40 years.


  1. Medication is an important element of Addiction treatment for many patients,especially when combined with counseling and other behavioral therapies.So need to take better prevention for the addiction.Intervention help

  2. Alcohol being widely accepted? America has lots and lots of teetotalers actually and other Western countries too.