Mistaken Theories about Alcoholism

Article excerpt

After 40 years of hard drinking and cancer, Mickey Mantle's liver was shot. The entire nation hopes that the transplant will be a success.

Mantle had, in recent years, gotten his drinking under control. He did it in the prescribed American way - by accepting complete abstention for the rest of his life.

Almost all Americans now believe in the "medical model" of alcoholism. It is alcohol, we believe, that causes alcoholism. And alcoholism is a disease, like diabetes.

The way to prevent alcoholism, most Americans believe, is to stigmatize alcohol as a drug and discourage its use as strongly as possible. U.S. Department of Education drug and alcohol-abuse materials are typical of the tone across the country. "Curricula which advocate responsible use of drugs (including alcohol) should be rejected."

But it is quite possible, and I believe true, that our assumptions about alcohol and alcoholism are completely wrong. A slim, scholarly volume called "Preventing Alcohol Abuse," by sociologist David Hanson of the State University of New York, challenges virtually every tenet of the modern American approach to alcohol.

Throughout our history, Americans - particularly those adhering to Protestant denominations - have viewed alcohol as evil. Since Prohibition, we've settled into the view that though alcohol is terrible, the social and economic costs of outlawing it are intolerably high. Other means of controlling consumption must therefore be found.

Hanson doesn't believe alcohol is evil. He believes that, used properly, it enhances life in many ways. Alcohol's health benefits, for example, reducing the risk of heart disease, are not in dispute among doctors. Where physicians differ is on whether to encourage patients to drink moderately. Many fear that such advice will inevitably lead to alcohol abuse.

Almost all human societies, throughout world history, have used alcohol. Hanson offers evidence that beer was fermented as early as 10,000 B.C. Throughout human history, alcohol offered medicinal, antiseptic and analgesic benefits. It was and is a social lubricant, a facilitator of relaxation and an aid to digestion.

Alcohol has also been abused by some since the dawn of civilization. But the severity and prevalence of alcohol abuse has differed dramatically in different societies. …