Is there any substance that elicits a more complex set of social consequences and reactions than alcohol? It is almost equally praised and vilified, promoted and banned, embraced and rejected.
I personally was a drunk for most of my 20s, quit drinking entirely for almost 10 years, then gradually, cautiously, and not without trepidation reintroduced “moderate” amounts of alcohol back into my diet. The old demons appear to be gone as other than two episodes – one of which was my bachelor party – I have not overindulged, nor, equally importantly, felt the urge to do so. For me personally – and apparently for the world at large – a little is good, a lot is awful. A few recent news items bear this out.
Last week, on New Year’s Eve of course, the NY Times ran an article on current health opinion regarding alcohol, calling it “the sharpest double-edged sword in medicine.”
- Thirty years of research has convinced many experts of the health benefits of moderate drinking for some people. A drink or two a day of wine, beer or liquor is, experts say, often the single best nonprescription way to prevent heart attacks – better than a low-fat diet or weight loss, better even than vigorous exercise. Moderate drinking can help prevent strokes, amputated limbs and dementia.
But moderate drinking also comes with some health risks, such as a slightly increased risk of breast cancer in women. And heavy drinking is accompanied by a such a fearful range of illness and catastrophe that policy makers seeking to create coherent health recommendations for the use of alcohol are stymied.
Isn’t use of the word “catastrophe” a bit hyperbolic? Well, no. Here’s a story from yesterday’s Boston Globe as an example:
- It’s when the shakes start, sometime after midnight or on a Sunday afternoon, that Michael McGlaulin sets out to score a bottle of ”cheap whiskey” or what merchants call ”wine for the homeless.”
It’s a stiff brew with a sharp aftertaste. But unlike other cocktails, this one has a few distinct advantages – it’s among the cheapest on the market, it’s available anytime, any day, and in addition to freshening breath, according to manufacturers, it helps fight gingivitis.
”I drink the big bottle every day,” says McGlaulin, 55. He explains one recent night, while drinking on the steps of a church, that he steals it or panhandles to buy it. ”I can’t stand the taste, but it carries me over; it prevents the seizures.”
In recent months, with more homeless on city streets, police say downtown convenience stores have seen a spate of thefts. The most stolen item: mouthwash. At $3.99 for a 50-ounce bottle, Listerine and similar brands pack a punch – with as much as 27 percent alcohol content, compared with about 12 percent for the typical bottle of wine. Another perk: drinking it is legal. Police can’t arrest anyone for drinking mouthwash in public.
This outrage must be stopped, right? Well, maybe not:
- health officials and outreach workers, who say they’ve seen a rise in the abuse of mouthwash by homeless alcoholics in recent years, argue it would be dangerous for stores to refuse to sell them mouthwash, especially on holidays or during the stretch between Saturday night and Monday morning when the state’s liquor stores are closed.
Without a fix for too long, alcoholics suffer withdrawal – and some die from it. Studies of Boston’s homeless population over the past decade have shown that more suffer seizures and die when they can’t get a drink.
A study of 14 homeless people who died between 1998 and 1999 found nearly all died on Sunday or early Monday morning, according to Healthcare for the Homeless, the study’s author. Three years earlier, a study of 1,700 emergency calls from shelters to police found that 25 percent of the calls were for seizures, with 75 percent of the calls on a Sunday or Monday.
Damn, that’s grim – I won’t even joke about the upswing in homeless alcoholics with minty fresh breath, all the better to panhandle with my dear.
Back to the Times – moderate drinking isn’t just okay, it’s downright beneficial for many:
- The cardiac benefits of low-dose alcohol are evident in study after study. All over the world, moderate drinkers have healthier hearts than teetotalers, with fewer heart attacks from fatty plaque clogging the heart’s arteries and blocking blood flow.
In countries like the United States where heart disease is a major cause of death, this translates into a survival advantage: moderate drinkers live considerably longer on average than nondrinkers.
….¶In a study of more than 80,000 American women, those who drank moderately had only half the heart attack risk of those who did not drink at all, even if they were slim, did not smoke and exercised daily. Moderate drinking was about as good for the heart as an hour of exercise a day. Not drinking at all was as bad for the heart as morbid obesity.
¶In thousands of middle-aged Danish men with high cholesterol, moderate drinkers had 50 percent less risk of developing heart disease from blocked arteries than abstainers.
¶Among more than 100,000 California adults, moderate drinking after age 40 was associated with reduced death rates during every subsequent decade of life – in some people by as much as 30 percent.
I sense you are waiting for the BUT – as Pee Wee Herman says to Simone in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, “everyone I know has a BIG BUT…”
Alcohol’s BIG BUT:
- But for every one of alcohol’s health benefits there is an equal and opposite risk if a single glass turns into three or four.
The hazards of drinking begin with the small but significant increased risk of breast cancer among women who are moderate drinkers.
Even among those with no family history of breast cancer or other risks, studies have repeatedly found that women who regularly have a drink a day have a 10 percent higher risk of breast cancer than nondrinkers. Heavy drinking raises the risk even higher.
Moderate drinking may also cause a small rise in strokes caused by bleeding into the brain.
And once drinking rises from moderate to heavy, health risks escalate. “You begin to see trouble at three to four to five drinks a day,” said Dr. Rimm. Heavy drinking raises the risk of high blood pressure, heart failure and half a dozen forms of cancer; it may cause diabetes, pancreatic failure, liver failure and severe dementia.
Heavy drinkers have mortality rates far higher than moderate drinkers, statistics which do not even include the effects of car accidents and alcohol-fueled violence that destroy not only the drinker but others as well. These effects are especially visible in the young: in one study, young adults who reported drinking three to five drinks a day had death rates twice as high as nondrinkers.
The net health effects of alcohol are heavily influenced by its dangers. The World Health Organization estimates that over all, alcohol causes as much illness and death as measles and malaria, and more years of life lost to death and disability than tobacco or illegal drugs.
Hence the dilemma – no one wants to actually encourage people to drink, even though moderate drinking has definite benefits for a large swath of the population.
- Executing its diktat banning “un-Islamic” sale of addictives, terrorists on Monday shot dead a alcohol dealer in the city.
Terrorists shot at Abdul Hamid Shiekh, who had a shop at Aloocha Bagh, at Solina in Civil Lines area here [Jammu and Kashmir], official sources said.
He was rushed to hospital where he was declared brought dead, they said.
Terrorist outfits have imposed a blanket ban on sale of addictive like alcohol and cigarettes and have threatened people dealing in them with dire consequences. [Press Trust of India]
Maybe Prohibition would have worked better here had we killed all the bootleggers.
Most of the world exists between the extremes of abstinence (Indonesia and Yemen bring up the rear) and the dipsomania of a Slovenia or a South Korea.
The problem with alcohol is that it is consumed by people, and so many people are all or nothing creatures: if a little is good then a lot must be better – THIS is the essence of the problem.
One more thing: don’t drink and drive. You’d think a 58 year-old superstar might know better:
- Former Supremes frontwoman Diana Ross was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving on the eve of New Year’s Eve.
Police in Tucson, Arizona, stopped the singer-actress early Monday morning after a witness reported a swerving vehicle.
A breath test showed the flamboyant 58-year-old mother of five had a blood-alcohol level of 0.20 percent, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, when she was pulled over at 12:30 a.m., says Sergeant Judy Altieri, a police spokeswoman.
Ross was ticketed for three misdemeanors: driving under the influence; driving with a blood-alcohol content over 0.08; and “extreme DUI” for having a blood-alcohol level greater than 0.15 percent. [E! online]
She wasn’t a little tipsy, she was shitfaced. Sounds like a problem and I hope she gets over it, but there is never a good excuse for drunk driving. This I know from wretched personal experience, as evidenced by this true tale, published originally on Tres Producers:
- Back in the late-’80s when my first marriage was staggering around punch drunk and I was staggering around drunk drunk, I set off one late Sunday afternoon to DJ the Gladstone’s Malibu employee party on the beach behind the restaurant.
Now this sounds like a muy fun idea, no? Setting up my portable, powerful sound system on the sand within reach of the mighty Pacific for a wild celebration with people who really know how to party, for few party harder than people in the “food service business” as they like to call it.
I was instructed to drive my little red Nissan truck loaded to the gills with my equipment and records (this was the ’80s) onto the sand to unload and set up. I did so, drove in one direction, then was told to turn around and head back in the other direction (why? who knows, but the customer is always right).
It was nearly high tide so there was very little room between the restaurant and the encroaching sea to turn around, but I made the effort and got stuck in the sand right on the edge of the water. The tide rose noticeably inch by inch, creeping up the two seaward tires alarmingly, my tires spun ever-deeper holes in the wet sand. I was finally dislodged by the entire crew of eight hefty bouncers who literally lifted the truck out of the ruts and back onto dry sand. After unloading, I decided it would be prudent to park in the lot rather than risk further calamity.
After I unloaded everything and got set up – running an extension cord all the way into the restaurant now closed and preparing for the party – I realized how difficult it was going to be to deal with stiff sea breezes blowing records off the turntables and into the darkness; airborne sand invading every crook and nanny of my equipment, the record sleeves, my mouth, my underwear, etc. I rigged a windbreak out of overturned tables and other debris, learned to carefully clean off each record before and after I played it, and did my thing.
I almost always drank at parties in those days, and after all the early excitement I drank even more than usual at that one. Between the open bar, frighteningly high spirited employees, whipping winds and bracing salt air, the party was a great “success” although it ended up costing me far more than I made to replace sand-scratched records and dismantle and clean out my entire system: amp, turntables, mixer, speakers, lighting. What a mess.
So the party was over – it was some time after midnight, pitch black, no moon, impressive wind. No way I was going to drive onto the sand again, so I had to schlep all of my stuff over the sand to the parking lot. I did what I always did when hauling equipment: took off my wedding ring and put it in my pocket because it got caught once on the metal framing of a speaker and nearly ripped my finger off.
I got hold of one of the big Cerwin Vega speakers and started wobbling toward the parking lot, a huge gust of wind literally knocked me over backwards with the speaker on top of me. Muttering and cursing foul fate, I crawled out from under the speaker, spitting sand, and brushed myself off. The right front pocket of my loose-fitting pants was turned inside-out. The others were full of sand. I returned the pocket to its home and then it hit me like a kick in kidney: the ring was gone in the sand, the wind, the dark. I frantically poked around but NO WAY. I calmed down and figured I’d come back in the morning and at least give it a good try.
I was rehearsing my story of why my wedding ring was in my pocket in the first place – very suspicious wife – as I drove down the 405 toward home in Redondo, when I got pulled over for speeding. I know this may seem impossible since EVERYONE is going about 80mph on the 405, especially at 2AM, but there you have it, and, of course, I was hauled in for drunk driving.
So now I am in jail, it’s about 5am, and I have to call my wife to come and bail me out AND tell her I lost my wedding ring. That may have been the day she made up her mind to bail herself, although she stuck around about another 18 months. Never did find the ring either. The woman is still pissed about it. Good thing we aren’t married anymore.