I’m not much of a drinker, but apparently lots of other adults in my age group are. At least that’s what a nationally representative survey, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), found.
This study is a rarity in that so much research about drinking focuses exclusively on teens, while this one specifically looked at adults’ drinking habits. My interest in this study was first piqued by an article in the Los Angeles Times, but I always recommend looking directly at the report itself rather than relying on a reporter’s interpretation of research. You can nearly always find something interesting that is left out of or distorted by the news.
According to the study, which included an unusually large sample of about 43,000 respondents eighteen and over, people aged 30 to 64 are the group most likely to have abused alcohol.
These are the supposedly solid middle years of maturity and responsibility, but less than a quarter of those the report calls alcohol abusers seek treatment. The authors point out that alcohol abuse contributes to other serious social and mental health problems. Nearly a third of adults surveyed reveal signs of alcohol abuse. Sounds like we have a serious social problem brewing, right?
But when I first visited NIAAA’s website, I noticed that much of the content concentrated on teen and underage drinking. Historically, concerns about alcohol and drugs center almost exclusively on so-called “problem populations,” groups previously singled out as a potential source of trouble.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, several states passed laws making drinking alcohol illegal—but only for African Americans and Native Americans. At the same time, many advocates of the temperance movement also feared new immigrants in cities, and blamed a wide variety of urban problems on the newcomers’ drinking habits.
This movement, of course, resulted in Prohibition, which banned alcohol across the United States. Like Prohibition, anti-drug laws passed throughout the twentieth century were primarily motivated by fear of the people associated with substance abuse, rather than by concern for the health of the users.
For instance, in the nineteenth century many middle-class whites living in rural areas routinely dosed themselves with “health tonics” that contained substances like cocaine. But cocaine became illegal due to fears that it caused African American men to become violent in the Jim Crow south, not because of the addiction problems the tonics created.
Young people became a “problem population” during the student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Restrictions on drug use, seen as part of the counter-culture, tightened. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), created in 1973, was a part of this formal crackdown.
If you check out the "Alcohol Alerts" on the NIAAA website, you will see that we still focus on the alcohol use of those with the least social power. In addition to teens and young adults, the institute reports on alcohol use among minorities, women, and people with HIV/AIDS.
But back to the recent report. Guess who is most likely to have problems with alcohol: white men in middle adulthood, especially those who earn $70,000 or more.
Why no hue and cry over these drinkers? We know that men are much more likely to be arrested for drinking and driving, and according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drivers aged 21-54 involved in fatal accidents are more likely to be drunk than teens and “underage” adults. So this population of drinkers does cause problems.
Many children live with parents who abuse alcohol; the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that nine percent of American kids have at least one parent who has a serious alcohol problem. These children likely experience high levels of instability and perhaps become alcohol abusers themselves.
But white, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.
And let’s not forget that alcohol is a huge industry that depends on well-off men to be their best customers. This industry can well afford the much-touted “We Card” programs because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.
We in America have an uneasy relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, we celebrate many happy occasions, conduct business deals, and mark holidays with a drink. Many people drink responsibly and never let alcohol or drugs impair their judgment or interfere with their lives.
And yet there are still vestiges of the old Puritan ethic hanging around, the same cultural strain that promoted temperance a century ago. Puritans believed in denying pleasure in favor of productivity, and in many ways we have not reconciled these two seemingly opposing forces yet. By focusing so much on trying to control those whom we think cannot control themselves, we can take the focus off of ourselves and our own confusion about where to draw the line between feeling good and being responsible.
But if people who often hold leadership positions in our society can’t even control their own behavior, we are left to question not just drinking, but the social order itself. Why do you think we ignore many problem drinkers and focus so much on people under 21?