Gladwell: cultural norms affect drinking!

Malcolm Gladwell cracks open a cold one and distills some academic research, as is his wont. This week’s topic: drinking and culture. After discussing the extended example of Bolivians and their norms for drinking 180 proof rum on weekends, he comes to the point that it’s not how much people drink but rather how they drink it that matters.

But wine lovers knew this! Since at least King James and Thomas Jefferson, wine has been seen wine as a drink of moderation, lower in alcohol than spirits and consumed with food. Gladwell cites research from the 1950s that showed that first-generation Italian immigrants in New Haven, CT had very low levels of alcoholism, despite drinking some wine with lunch and dinner. Other immigrant groups and second- and third-generation Italians had different patterns of consumption (less moderation, less with food) and had higher rates of alcoholism.

This relates to our discussion last fall teaching about wine in elementary schools, in Italy and America.

It’s good to see the topic getting a broad airing–check out the story if you are snowed in somewhere (it’s not available online). Here’s a taste:

The abuse of alcohol has, historically, been thought of as a moral failing. Muslims and Mormons and many kinds of fundamentalist Christians do not drink, because they consider alcohol an invitation to sin. Around the middle of the last century, alcoholism began to be widely considered a disease: it was recognized that some proportion of the population was genetically susceptible to the effects of drinking. Policymakers, meanwhile, have become increasingly interested in using economic and legal tools to control alcohol-related behavior: that’s why the drinking age has been raised from eighteen to twenty-one, why drunk-driving laws have been toughened, and why alcohol is taxed heavily. Today, our approach to the social burden of alcohol is best described as a mixture of all three: we moralize, medicalize, and legalize.

“Drinking Games: How much people drink may matter less than how they drink it.” Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, Feb 15 & 22, 2010. pp. 70 – 76.

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9 Responses to “Gladwell: cultural norms affect drinking!”

  1. So a conclusion could be that we should lower taxes to wine and educate people on how to drink?

    I think taxes are never a good solution, high taxes just drive me to drink cheaper wine…

  2. Alcoholism, like other substance abuse and dependence, is not a disease in itself. It is somewhere between a symptom and self-medication. There is, in fact, tendency for people to gravitate to particular substances because they treat underlying disorders. T

  3. @ Arthur…huh? Is that based on anything other than an opinion?

  4. Arthur,

    Let me help you out a bit. From the Mayo clinic:

    Alcohol addiction — physical dependence on alcohol — occurs gradually. Over time, drinking alcohol alters the balance of some chemicals in your brain, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits impulsiveness, and glutamate, which excites the nervous system. Alcohol also raises the levels of dopamine in the brain, which is associated with the pleasurable aspects of drinking alcohol. Excessive, long-term drinking can deplete or increase the levels of some of these chemicals, causing your body to crave alcohol to restore good feelings or to avoid negative feelings.

    Other factors can lead to excessive drinking that contributes to the addiction process. These include:

    * Genetics. Certain genetic factors may cause a person to be vulnerable to alcoholism or other addictions.
    * Emotional state. High levels of stress, anxiety or emotional pain can lead some people to drink alcohol to block out the turmoil. Certain stress hormones may be associated with alcoholism.
    * Psychological factors. Having low self-esteem or depression may make you more likely to abuse alcohol. Having friends or a close partner who drinks regularly — but who may not abuse alcohol — could promote excessive drinking on your part. It may be difficult for you to distance yourself from these “enablers” or at least from their drinking habits.
    * Social and cultural factors. The glamorous way that drinking alcohol is portrayed in advertising and in the media may send the message that it’s OK to drink excessively.

    In other words, alcoholism is NOT just a symptom or self-medication or something in between. It CAN be but it also can be rooted in genetic factors — inherited traits — that are the root cause. Some additional information for you:

    Genetic factors play a significant role in alcoholism and may account for about half of the total risk for alcoholism. The disorder is so complex, however, that no single gene is likely to be a major culprit.

    Researchers are investigating a number of inherited traits that make particular individuals susceptible to this disorder. Some examples are the following:

    * The amygdala is an area of the brain thought to play a role in the emotional aspects of craving, which can lead to addiction. One study found that the amygdala is smaller in subjects with family histories of alcoholism, suggesting that inherited differences in brain structure may affect risk. Other studies suggest that certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) and proteins in the amygdala region may be involved in the link between anxiety and alcoholism.
    * Because alcohol is not found easily in nature, genetic mechanisms to protect against excessive consumption may not have evolved in humans as they frequently have for protection against natural threats. Some evidence, then, indicates that a lack of genetic protection plays a major role in alcoholism. Such studies have found that people with a family history of alcoholism tend to “hold their liquor” better than those without such a history. Experts suggest some people may inherit a lack of those warning signals that ordinarily make people stop drinking. Research suggests this factor may contribute to between 40 – 60% of alcoholism cases related to genetic factors. (Even in the absence of genetic factors, repeated exposure to alcohol increases the ability to tolerate larger amounts before experiencing behavioral impairment.)
    * Genes that regulate certain chemical byproducts of alcohol are under intense scrutiny. Alcohol is metabolized in a two-stage process: It is first converted to acetaldehyde (AcH), which is then converted into acetate. AcH is being researched because it plays a role in most actions of alcohol, including damaging effects on the liver and upper airway. It also may be protective. For example, some people, particularly in some Asian and Jewish populations, may be less likely to become alcoholic because of a genetic deficiency in AcH, which produces a buildup of acetate after drinking alcohol. Acetate is toxic and in high amounts causes flushing, dizziness, and nausea. Individuals with this genetic factor, then, are less likely to become alcoholic. (This deficiency is not completely protective against drinking, however, particularly if there is social pressure and high exposure to alcohol, such as among college fraternity members.)
    * Some people with alcoholism may have an inherited dysfunction in the transmission of serotonin. This is an important brain chemical messenger known as a neurotransmitter. It is important for well-being and associated behaviors (e.g., eating, relaxation, sleep). Abnormal serotonin levels are associated with high levels of tolerance for alcohol. They are also linked to impulsive and aggressive behaviors, which can predispose people to drink and can increase the risk for dangerous behaviors and suicide in alcoholics. (Serotonin abnormalities can also develop from environmental pressures as well, such as early loss in childhood.)

    Hope that helps balance your perspective on this disease a bit.


  5. Its a stretch to call what the Bolivianos drink “Rum”. They call it “Puro” and when I lived there it came in strengths of up to 96% (192 Proof) and its what we would call rubbing alcohol. Its not made from sugar cane, as rum would be.

    I paid $1.40 for about 0.75 liters. I only drank it the one time seriously. Pure is painful, it just burns when it touches the lips, and when I mixed it with fruit juice it ended the night fairly sharpish.

    Puro plays an important role in the annual Tinku festivals, which are basically street brawls, requiring a human blood sacrifice for the upcoming harvest.

    Fun memories

  6. I think it also has to do with the “taboo” factor. Since wine has historically not been part of every American meal, you aren’t legally supposed to touch it until age 21, but yet it’s not that hard to get, there is a mystique that surrounds wine and harder alcohol that makes it seem like something daring. In other countries not that much emphasis is put on it – it’s there, you can even get beer in a vending machine here in Italy – so since it’s so widely available and part of a meal, not a binge activity, it’s not that big of a deal, even for kids.

    There also is the impact of winemaking on society – here I posted about little kids in Calabria that made ads for Calabrian wine at school and posted them on youtube: Since these kids probably personally know someone that makes wine, whether it be a family member or a friend, they did these slogans as a way to support their own community. If your Dad makes it, is it really that “forbidden” and dangerous? The actual winemaking process is much more foreign in the U.S. considering our rates of importing wine from abroad.

  7. Arthur and Peter: I think you are both correct. Alcohol (or drug) dependency often tends to be a symptom of someone trying to help themselves cope with an underlying problem or problems. Coping over an extended period in this way could lead one to become a physical addict.

    Anyway I also think Gladwell is seriously in need of a better editor, at a different magazine. He is helping turn the New Yorker into a monument to pop science, reader cartoons and, did you see the dog photo contest? Egads. I loved that magazine once, but hopeless anecdotal obsessives like Gladwell are turning me off. Nobody else calls this thing’s bluff?

  8. I spent a decade in the wine business and followed this site regularly, until eleven months ago. At this time I had to come to the realization I had been an alcoholic/addict for nearly twenty years. I came by this site while tracking Gladwell’s piece through other sites. I still haven’t had a chance to read it, and its not urgent that I do (especially if I have to buy the whole issue, which I will not likely read). What I do find interesting are the responses from people who have not personally stepped into the world of recovery after many heavy years of use. Oh, this is much more than self-medication. It is easy to say “just fix the underlying problem and you’ll be fine.” It is not so easy to see addiction as the festering, painful disease of the body, mind, and soul that it truly is. Addiction is a horrible situation and despite the incredible discoveries by science, we are still fighting tooth and nail to understand it.

    Well, I won’t be back to this site, as I know I’m breaking a cardinal rule of recovery. 🙂


  9. I agree that cultural and religious norms influence drinking habits. As a Muslim, I am not allowed to drink alcohol and I am sure that the ban would be good for me and others


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