Federal Agencies: Temperance Approach Toward Alcohol

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Anti-alcohol strategies promoted by many alcohol groups and agencies include asserting that alcohol is a gateway drug leading people into illicit drug use, describing alcohol as a poison, and insisting that "Alcohol is the dirtiest drug" we have.

The zealots who propagandized for the disastrous National Prohibition early in this century acted in a time when there was little scientific knowledge about the effects of alcohol and they had strange ideas.

Consider these ridiculous assertions:

Astonishingly, all these statements, which are very misleading at best, were not made by prohibitionists of old but by officials representing governmental agencies of today. Significantly, the comments are not based on scientific evidence but instead seem to reflect a neo-prohibitionist effort to stigmatize alcohol.

The effort to stigmatize alcohol includes promoting the prohibitionist belief that there is no difference between moderate drinking and alcohol abuse--the two are portrayed as one and the same. This leads the U.S. Department of Education to direct schools and colleges to reject educational programs which promote responsible drinking among adults and instead favor a simplistic call for total abstinence.

Part of this oversimplified approach is the notion that alcohol is a dangerous gateway drug that seduces users to begin using illegal drugs. The supposed "proof" provided is that most people who are involved with illicit drugs drank alcohol initially. Of course, most illicit drug users also drank milk, ate candy bars, and drank cola previously. But don't annoy the neo-prohibitionists with evidence or logic.

Some federal and state agencies also systemically attempt to equate legal alcohol consumption with illegal drug use. For example, federal guidelines direct agencies to substitute "alcohol and drug use" with "alcohol and other drug use," to replace "substance abuse" with "alcohol and other drug abuse," and to avoid use of the term "responsible drinking" altogether.

Alcohol is also frequently associated with crack cocaine and other illegal drugs by discussing them in the same paragraph. Often the effort is more blatant. A poster picturing a wine cooler warns "Don't be fooled. This is a drug."

Technically, this assertion is correct. Any substance --salt, vitamins, water, food, etc.-- that alters the functioning of the body is a drug. But the word "drug" has negative connotations and the attempt is clearly to stigmatize a legal product that is used pleasurably in moderation by most American adults.

In stigmatizing alcohol as a "drug," however, neo-prohibitionists may be inadvertently trivializing the use of illegal drugs and thereby encourage their use. Or, especially among youngsters, these zealots may be creating the false impression that parents who use alcohol in moderation are drug abusers whose good example should be rejected by their children. Thus, this misguided effort to equate alcohol with illicit drugs is likely to be counterproductive.

Instead of stigmatizing alcohol and trying either to scare or force people into abstinence, we need to recognize that it is not alcohol itself but rather the misuse of alcohol that is the problem. The vast majority of American adults do in fact use alcohol in moderation to enhance the quality of their lives with no ill effects. The neo-prohibitionist attack on alcohol is proving to be not only deceptive and ineffective, but dangerously counterproductive in the effort to teach the responsible use of alcohol.


References and Readings

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