Are we drinking too much?

Yglesias had a really nice post on how increasing alcohol taxes is a very smart way to try and cut crime that I was planning to paste extensively from.  But, before I got the chance, Kate Julian with just the best piece I have ever read on alcohol in the latest issue of the Atlantic.  It tackles the relationship between humans and alcohol evolutionary, psychologically, sociologically, etc.  So much good stuff.  You totally should just read it. 

As somebody who is basically a non-drinker I found it particularly interesting on many levels.  As for the non-drinker part, as you know, I’m picky and more than anything I pretty much hate the taste of all but some mixed drinks.  And those are expensive (and I’m cheap– that’s why a substantial part of my lifetime drinking is open bars at weddings).  Also, on my personal cost/benefit, I’m already pretty uninhibited and rarely in need of additional social lubrication (my wife would surely argue I generally need more inhibition even when sober), so the benefits seem much smaller for me than the average person.  That said, full disclosure is that my wife and I started dating in significant part due to alcohol lowering inhibitions.  

Anyway, onto some of the good stuff:

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.

And here’s the evolution part I found super-fascinating:

Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.

Let’s get this out of the way: Part of the answer is “Because it is fun.” Drinking releases endorphins, the natural opiates that are also triggered by, among other things, eating and sex. Another part of the answer is “Because we can.” Natural selection has endowed humans with the ability to drink most other mammals under the table. Many species have enzymes that break alcohol down and allow the body to excrete it, avoiding death by poisoning. But about 10 million years ago, a genetic mutation left our ancestors with a souped-up enzyme that increased alcohol metabolism 40-fold.

This mutation occurred around the time that a major climate disruption transformed the landscape of eastern Africa, eventually leading to widespread extinction. In the intervening scramble for food, the leading theory goes, our predecessors resorted to eating fermented fruit off the rain-forest floor. Those animals that liked the smell and taste of alcohol, and were good at metabolizing it, were rewarded with calories. In the evolutionary hunger games, the drunk apes beat the sober ones.

But even presuming that this story of natural selection is right, it doesn’t explain why, 10 million years later, I like wine so much. “It should puzzle us more than it does,” Edward Slingerland writes in his wide-ranging and provocative new book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, “that one of the greatest foci of human ingenuity and concentrated effort over the past millennia has been the problem of how to get drunk.” The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up. As the importance of alcohol as a caloric stopgap diminished, why didn’t evolution eventually lead us away from drinking—say, by favoring genotypes associated with hating alcohol’s taste? That it didn’t suggests that alcohol’s harms were, over the long haul, outweighed by some serious advantages.

Versions of this idea have recently bubbled up at academic conferences and in scholarly journals and anthologies (largely to the credit of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Drunk helpfully synthesizes the literature, then underlines its most radical implication: Humans aren’t merely built to get buzzed—getting buzzed helped humans build civilization. Slingerland is not unmindful of alcohol’s dark side, and his exploration of when and why its harms outweigh its benefits will unsettle some American drinkers. Still, he describes the book as “a holistic defense of alcohol.” And he announces, early on, that “it might actually be good for us to tie one on now and then.”

Alcohol is basically beneficial as a social drug.  As an individual drug… not so much:

But this rosy story about how alcohol made more friendships and advanced civilization comes with two enormous asterisks: All of that was before the advent of liquor, and before humans started regularly drinking alone…

Just as people were learning to love their gin and whiskey, more of them (especially in parts of Europe and North America) started drinking outside of family meals and social gatherings. As the Industrial Revolution raged, alcohol use became less leisurely. Drinking establishments suddenly started to feature the long counters that we associate with the word bar today, enabling people to drink on the go, rather than around a table with other drinkers. This short move across the barroom reflects a fairly dramatic break from tradition: According to anthropologists, in nearly every era and society, solitary drinking had been almost unheard‑of among humans.

The social context of drinking turns out to matter quite a lot to how alcohol affects us psychologically. Although we tend to think of alcohol as reducing anxiety, it doesn’t do so uniformly. As Michael Sayette, a leading alcohol researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, recently told me, if you packaged alcohol as an anti-anxiety serum and submitted it to the FDA, it would never be approved. He and his onetime graduate student Kasey Creswell, a Carnegie Mellon professor who studies solitary drinking, have come to believe that one key to understanding drinking’s uneven effects may be the presence of other people. Having combed through decades’ worth of literature, Creswell reports that in the rare experiments that have compared social and solitary alcohol use, drinking with others tends to spark joy and even euphoria, while drinking alone elicits neither—if anything, solo drinkers get more depressed as they drink.[emphasis mine]

Anyway, lots more good stuff.  Short version… if you are drinking reasonable amounts and you are doing so with other people, you’re fine.  If otherwise… maybe not.

And, as for the maybe not.  Alcohol is a huge contributor to crime.  My favorite criminologist–the late, great Mark Kleiman–wrote about this a lot and one of the reasons I love Yglesias on crime is that he’s heavily influenced by Kleiman, too.  One way to have less alcohol-influenced crime is higher alcohol taxes.  Yes, it’s really that simple.  Sure, easy for me the non-drinker to say, but if you told me that doubling the cost of my beloved Diet Dr Pepper would save lives and substantially reduce human suffering, I’d gladly pay up.  Anyway, onto Yglesias:

This is not particularly in the news, but I think one of the most underrated basic public policy points around is that the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a pretty serious public health problem.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a drink now and then, and I enjoyed more drinks more frequently when I was younger. A lot of people derive immense satisfaction out of alcohol as a complement to socializing or find winding down with a glass of wine at the end of the day to be incredibly relaxing.

But I don’t think we really have any kind of clear consensus on how to weigh everyday pleasures against public health concerns. About 40,000 people die each year from injuries inflicted by firearms, of which more than half are suicides. In some social circles in the United States, that’s seen as an acute crisis worthy of drastic political action to curtail the tide of violence. CDC stats say about 95,000 excess deaths each year can be attributed to alcohol abuse, of which about 10,000 are drunk driving fatalities. So looked at one way, booze is deadlier than guns. Looked at another way, gun murder is a more serious problem than drunk driving. Either way, to the extent that you’re inclined to see the gun situation as worth major legislative action, I think it’s certainly worth looking at alcohol as well. Indeed, scholars think that something like 40% of murders involves the use of alcohol, so the issues really are fairly comparable…

We tax alcohol in the United States, of course, but we’ve chosen to do it in a slightly odd way that treats beer, wine, and liquor differently.

As a side note, the favorable tax treatment of beer relative to liquor helps explain the rise of “hard seltzer.” You could combine vodka and carbonated water in a can, but that would be taxed as liquor. Eventually, people figured out a process for creating a flavorless malt liquor — “hard seltzer” — that is taxed like beer. But as you can see here courtesy of David Roodman, the big picture is that inflation has eroded the value of all of these taxes.

This is particularly significant because household income has also risen a lot since 1960. So the real value of the tax on beer and spirits has not only fallen considerably, but the affordability of paying the booze tax has surged over the generations…

When German Lopez made the case for a higher alcohol tax at Vox a few years ago, he noted that “if you care about gun violence, or car crashes, or the current drug overdose crisis, or HIV/AIDS, you should care about alcohol — because alcohol’s annual death toll is higher than deaths due to guns, cars, drug overdoses, or HIV/AIDS ever have been in a single year in America.”

With crime on the rise, I think it’s particularly important to note the role of alcohol in perpetuating violence.

“Take any dimension of the problem you like, except for source country violence,” the late crime scholar Mark Kleiman told the Washington Post in 2013. “All illegal drugs combined are to alcohol as the Mediterranean is to the Pacific.”

He explained that surveys of incarcerated people reveal that half the people in prison were drunk at the time they committed their offense. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t have committed the crime if they’d been sober. But we all know that drunkenness reduces inhibitions and time-horizons (that’s why it’s fun, right?), and uninhibited people who don’t think about long-term consequences commit more crimes…

A lot of people seem to be skeptical that higher alcohol taxes would have a meaningful impact on any alcohol-related problems.

Conveniently, not only is there a lot of research out there about this, but David Roodman reviewed it for the Open Philanthropy Project and, in many cases, did replications of the underlying studies. And the evidence is pretty clear that higher taxes mean less drinking…

Roodman’s view is that looking only at alcohol-related disease, “a 10 percent price increase would cut the death rate 9-25 percent,” saving several thousand lives per year.

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff all-around.  Short version: don’t drink alone and tax alcohol more.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

6 Responses to Are we drinking too much?

  1. KJ says:

    One if my majors was Anthropology. I learned two things about alcohol (1) fermented grains, as in beer, have some nutritional value even if it is just caloric and (2) Italians have a lower incidence of alcoholism than Italian-Americans. This is attributed to the fact that children are given watered wine in Italy and alcohol is not looked at as “forbidden.” Whereas in America alcohol, even watered wine, is not given to children and alcohol is generally looked at as forbidden to anyone under 18 making it more alluring. In America we have less opportunity to learn to drink in moderation and appropriately on social or family occasions.

    Personally, I remember being given a sip of my great grandmother’s blackberry wine before I could see over the table standing up. This was rare and just a sip as was appropriate for my age. More significantly I remember my father making me very weak mixed drinks as a teenager when my parents had parties. I like alcohol, my sister does not; I never once saw an adult family member drunk. All of which is to say based on my experience the quality of exposure to alcohol has an impact.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Neither of my parents had any moral objections to alcohol and drank occasionally, but just not much of drinkers. Any my sister and I are both pretty much the same. Nature or nurture?!

  2. Ridge says:

    Really enjoyed the article. Like KJ, I feel there’s a lot to be said for the way you’re exposed to alcohol, and I can’t help but feel like the “forbidden fruit/right of passage/it’s what the cool people do” ideal that American culture instills in its teenagers is at the route of a lot of problems with teen drinking.

    I’ve always liked drinking, and did so pretty heavily from the ages of 17-22 or so, but now I very rarely (if ever really) drink to the point of being drunk. I’m about to turn 26, and have started to find it REALLY annoying when people are super drunk and can’t handle themselves—which I feel is tolerated a bit too much in our culture. Who knew I’d become lame so fast?

    Anyways, I think the Italians have it right on treating it more as a “food” than a drug. Even when I studied abroad in Italy at age 20, I remember remarking how much healthier I thought their drinking culture was. Obviously drinking alone is a problem, but I think something the article didn’t highlight enough is how unhealthy our social drinking culture is as well.

  3. Ridge says:

    And, yes, I misspelled “root.” And, no, it’s not because I’ve been drinking 🙂

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