A while back, a friend sent me this Freakonomics podcast, What's More Dangerous: Alcohol or Marijuana?
The premise was as follows:
If we today - right now - lived in a world that didn't have alcohol or marijuana, and we suddenly discovered them both, what would we think and do as a society? We'd have no established societal norms, no laws, no happy hours, no custom or ceremony. No Napa, no 420, no head shops, no mixologists, no bars. No preconceived notion of the importance of one or the other, no history, no attachment whatsoever.
In this blank canvas world - would we develop the same attitudes towards drinking and pot if they magically appeared tomorrow?
The hosts - Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt - opened the podcast by quoting Professor David Nutt, former UK drug czar - as saying "I think if alcohol were discovered today…people would be very concerned with the toxicity. I suspect alcohol would be banned within 10 years if it became available today. If marijuana were discovered today, I think people would probably accept it."
The podcast went into great depth about the dangers of alcohol vs. the dangers of marijuana. The message loud and clear - alcohol is FAR more dangerous than marijuana, and if alcohol was a new drug that hit the streets tomorrow, we would most definitely ban the hell of it like we do any new toxic substance that comes on scene in this day and age.
This is not news to me.
Since stepping to the other side of drinking culture and witnessing not only first hand what alcohol does to us on an individual and societal basis, but also delving into the research on what it is costing us on a macro level, I am clear that our love affair with wine tastings and mixology and craft beers is not only inhibiting us from individually and collectively reaching our fullest potential, but killing us. And not just a few of us who have gone off the deep end. I think it's killing a lot of us in ways we don't realize. A cancer that we as a whole are either too afraid to examine or unwilling to examine or truly just too uninformed to think to examine.
In my opinion, the danger of alcohol is NOT the alcohol itself, but rather, our attitudes toward it. The real danger of it not so much in the substance (which of course, is dangerous), but in our social conditioning around it.
We've been conditioned to believe alcohol is only dangerous in certain cases, to certain individuals, in certain amounts. We've been conditioned to believe that drinking is simply a rite of passage, akin to obtaining a drivers license. We've been conditioned to believe that it is normal to need this one particular drug to unwind after work, toast a celebration, eat a fine dinner, commune with friends, nurse a heart ache, or enjoy a brunch. And we've further been conditioned to believe that we'll be social pariahs, party poopers, abnormals, and outcasts if we either can't drink it or don't want to.
In America, life with alcohol is normal, and the individual and collective ills are a justifiable price we pay to maintain that normal.
in America, life without alcohol is NOT normal, and the attitude is we would rather pay the individual and collective price alcohol costs us than be the guy who doesn't drink.
In the podcast, this is evidenced CLEARLY, in the excerpted conversation between the two hosts, co-authors of the Freakonomic book series and co-hosts of the podcast.
Dubner: So, if you could control all four of your kids in the future and require that they could only consume one or the other, marijuana or alcohol, which would it be?
Levitt: I think that I would have them consume alcohol and not marijuana. Because I think alcohol is just such an integral part of being an American. And I think that if you have sensible attitudes towards alcohol it can be a huge positive and doesn’t have to be a huge negative.
Dubner: Okay, so go then beyond then your family and society at large, does then the social benefit of alcohol outweigh or justify the social costs of alcohol, which strike me as being incredibly high.
Levitt: I’ve never done a calculation, but my hunch is that the benefits of alcohol are huge relative to the costs of alcohol. If you’re willing to count the utility that people get from using and abusing alcohol as part of your calculus. I think it’s not even close. I think that the joy and the pleasure that people get from alcohol, as evidenced by the amount that we drink and how central it is to everything we do, is just orders of magnitude bigger than the costs.
Steven Levitt is one of the smartest men in American popular culture, and if he can rationalize away all of horror that alcohol causes us personally and societally, and say that "because it brings joy to so many" the benefits outweigh the cost...or that because drinking is "an integral part of being American" that he'd prefer his kids drank despite the known dangers so long as they keep "sensible attitudes" towards it…what does that say about us as a society and culture?
I'll tell you what it says.
...that we'd prefer our kids go along with what is established in American culture than to question whether or not what is established in American culture might be killing us or eventually kill them.
...that we think that the "joy and pleasure and utility" that alcohol provides cannot be found within us or outside of our relationship with alcohol, so we should drink despite the known costs.
...that because we drink so much and because it's so central to our lives and because everyone does it that means it's beneficial and we should just continue to do it despite the cost.
When I heard this part of the podcast - I will be honest - I screamed and turned it off. Because holy shit Steven Levitt. If everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you tell your kids to do that, too?
Today is St. Patrick's Day. A "holiday" that is the epitome of the tolerance we have as a nation for our one legal drug and our collective tolerance for the abuse of it and the cost that abuse brings. This day here in America where we color our beer green and wear shirts that proclaim how drunk we are and where mostly non-Irish Americans who couldn't tell you the historical significance of the day line up outside of Irish pubs in green accoutrement and celebrate to the extreme what Steven Levitt would describe as an integral part of being American - drinking. A day that in his words would demonstrate that the joy and pleasure and utility we get out consuming alcohol - as evidenced by how much we consume it - is magnitudes greater than the price we pay for that joy.
And so it is on this "holiday" that I go back to Steven Levitt's hunch - that the benefits of alcohol outweigh the costs - and publish 9 shocking facts that highlight that cost.
And I ask...what do you think? Does the utility of alcohol justify these costs? Do we just keep drinking and doing what we have done, and hope it gets better? Do we just keep doing it as we have always done it because it's just what we do?
9 Shocking Facts About Alcohol.
1. Alcohol is more harmful than crack, heroin, and crystal meth. David Nutt, former chief drugs adviser to the British government, asked drug-harm experts to rank 20 different drugs on 16 different measures. Alcohol was found to be the most dangerous overall, scoring 72 to heroin's 55 and crack cocaine's 54. Heroin, crack, and crystal meth were the most harmful drugs to the individual, while alcohol, heroin and crack were the most harmful to others. Cocaine and Tobacco scored relatively low - 27 and 26 respectively.
2. 10% of American deaths (88,000) will be due to alcohol ABUSE (excessive drinking) this year. That is 1 in 10 of us. It is the 4th leading cause of preventable death.
4. 40% of violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. Drinking is especially common among perpetrators of specific crimes, including murder, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. And almost 40% of homicide victims tested had some blood alcohol in their systems when they were killed.
5. 92% of domestic abuse perpetrators report using alcohol or drugs on the day of the assault. Research indicates 60-70% of assailants were under the influence of alcohol.
6. 40% of those who imbibe abuse. Or, 29% of the adult population abuses alcohol. Or, 1 in 3 adults. Let me say that again: 1 in 3 adults have an abusive relationship with alcohol (which is why it is the 4th leading cause of preventable death).
7. Only 10% of those who have an abusive relationship with alcohol are considered addicted. That means 90% of those who have an abusive relationship with alcohol don't qualify as "alcoholics" - while 100% of our treatment programs are targeted to acute addiction. In other words, for the majority of problem drinkers, there are no treatment modalities.
8. Excessive drinking cost the United States $225 BILLION per year in 2006. $225 BILLION a year.
9. 72% of that $225 BILLION WAS LOST WORK PRODUCTIVITY ALONE. That is $162 BILLION a year in lost workplace productivity.
This is not a call for us to ban or make alcohol illegal, or a call for us to toke up instead of throw back. This is simply a call for us to wake up to the idea that just because it's what our parents did, does not mean it's what we should do. Just because it's what we all do, does not mean it's what we should teach our children to do. Legal does not equal safe. Social norm does not equal social good.
There is no social norm or magnitude of joy that warrants the price we pay - individually and collectively - for our alcohol. We must change our individual attitudes towards it if we hope to leave ourselves and future generations a better world than we found.