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Alcohol - To Your Health, or ... Maybe Not

Published in The Wall Street Journal—April 5, 2002

Michael Judge's commentary about our nation's schizophrenic attitudes about alcohol was right on the mark ("Drinks All Around; It's Our 'Sacred Rite'," editorial page, March 27) .

Given that our society prefers simple "good" vs. "bad" dichotomies on most social issues, alcohol, no matter what the pattern of use, consistently gets the "bad" rap — despite the overwhelming collection of medical data confirming that regular, moderate use of alcohol by those of middle age and older contributes to long life and good health.

It's true that we have problems with alcohol abuse, misuse and bingeing on campus, but perhaps our restrictive laws are partly to blame.

Prohibiting the sale of liquor to responsible young adults (those in the 18-21 age range) may actually foster binge drinking and alcohol abuse. American teens, unlike their European peers, don't learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.

Alcohol is widely accepted and enjoyed in our culture. But we legally proscribe alcohol until the age of 21 (why not 30 or 45?). Our 18-year-olds can drive cars, fly planes, marry, vote, pay taxes, take out loans and risk their lives as members of the armed forces. But laws in all 50 states say that no alcoholic beverages may be sold to anyone until that magic 21st birthday.

In parts of the Western world, moderate drinking by teenagers and even children under their parents' supervision is a given. Though the per-capita consumption of alcohol in France, Spain and Portugal is higher than in the U.S., the rate of alcoholism and alcohol abuse is lower. A glass of wine at dinner is normal practice. Kids learn to regard moderate drinking as an enjoyable family activity rather than as something they have to sneak away to do. Banning drinking by young people makes it a badge of adulthood — a tantalizing forbidden fruit.

Mr. Judge expressed disappointment that NBC "caved" to pressure and withdrew its plans to advertise liquor ads, but I regard NBC's decision as simply further proof of our inconsistent attitudes about alcohol: Wine and beer are already heavily advertised on TV. Alcohol is alcohol whether it is in the form of beer, wine or distilled spirits. A generous glass of wine contains more alcohol than a typical gin and tonic. The outrage expressed by the AMA over liquor ads — and the tolerance of wine and beer ads — is just another example of the muddled thinking that surrounds alcohol issues.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan President
American Council on Science and Health
New York


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