What Causes Alcohol Abuse

by Bruce K. Alexander, Ph.D.

Alcohol abuse is not a significant cause of social problems, but is largely a result of those problems. Therefore, simplistic minimum age laws, zero tolerance, or reduction of consumption policies are doomed to failure.

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The temperance movement popularized an explanation of social disorder in the 19th century. It preached that alcohol was the primary cause of ill-health, crime, and family violence, and that drinking ultimately menaced civilization itself. Drinking was said to transform people into drunkards who were doomed to perpetual inebriation and vice. Moderate drinking was impossible - all drinkers were on the road to degradation. Universal, total abstinence was the cure-all. Ways of promoting abstinence generally fit three categories: temperance education (meaning anti-alcohol propaganda), treatment (often religious conversion), and prohibition.

When the religious terminology is dropped, these 19th century ideas are strangely familiar. This is because today's alcohol policy is build on temperance assumptions, with only minor modifications. It sees ill-health, family violence, and other social ills largely as manifestations of alcohol consumption. Its remedies for the "alcohol problem" fit the temperance model of promoting abstinence through education, treatment, and reducing availability It uses a contemporary vocabulary, of course, but the temperance ideas shine through.

Although these ideas were promising in the 19th century, their contemporary popularity is difficult to justify. The bulk of the temperance and neo-temperance claims are unsupported and are actually contradicted by current data. This is true of such early claims as that drinking inevitably converts people into drunkards, and later claims as that alcohol is a "gateway or steppingstone" substance leading to drug use. It is also true of political predictions, such as that alcohol prohibition would reduce ill-health, crime, and violence. However, these flawed temperance beliefs and ideas form the basis of alcohol policy in North America.

At a time when thought is changing everywhere, it is reasonable to expect that the temperance framework, now burdened with contradictory evidence and a century of failure, will be replaced with a more productive perspective. What follows is a sketch of my nomination as the replacement.

In the temperance view of history, alcohol is a major cause of society's problems. However, the social history of the temperance era, i.e., the 19th and 20th centuries, suggests different causes, which I collectively label as "dislocation". By "dislocation" I mean separation of people from material, social, and spiritual ties that are essential for a tolerable existence.

The last two centuries saw human dislocation on an unprecedented level, driven by geometric population growth and the industrial revolution. All over England, for example, hundreds of thousands of people were dislocated from rural homes and traditions to cities, factories, work houses, poor houses, jails, and from these institutions to North America, Australia, and other colonies. The crime wave that accompanied these dislocations provoked furious application of the lash, the gallows, and the "transportation" of 160,000 convicts to Australia and 40,000 to the American colonies. By contemporary standards enormous amounts of alcohol were consumed during this period.

The more fortunate of the dislocated poor made their way to Canada and other colonies as free settlers, but even those who prospered were still bereft of families and traditions. Moreover, many were perpetually re-dislocated. The population grew convulsively; the industrial revolution took up where it had left off in the old world; military forces dispersed rebellions of industrial workers, tenants, and slaves; wars, repeated depressions, and new waves of immigration made everything insecure. Westward expansion flooded the continent with fighting, drinking Europeans.

Settlers were victims of dislocation, but they also displaced indigenous peoples wherever they landed, and these native Americans often moved and displaced still others. Native people quickly learned the English custom of seeking solace in liquor and other drugs, which the settlers provided in abundance when it suited their purposes.

In our times, North America continues to be swept by waves of immigrants, refugees, and economic immigrants. Moreover, social problems and excessive alcohol use characterize not only geographically dislocated people, but also people "dislocated" in a more general sense ­ including the unemployed, victims of family and community disintegration, and ghetto blacks cut off form mainstream society.

Obviously, excessive alcohol use is not confined to the poor and its existence among the affluent seems to have similar roots. Dislocation, in a broad sense, is now the norm for rich and poor. Jobs disappear on short notice; communities are weak and unstable; people routinely change spouses, technical skills and fundamental beliefs as they progress; the continued habitability of the earth itself is in question. For rich and poor alike, dislocation plays havoc with the delicate interpenetrations of people, society, and the physical world that are necessary for an existence that is tolerable without chemical crutches.

This view of history leads to an understanding of alcohol and society that contradicts the assumptions of the temperance framework that are listed above. Most fundamentally, alcohol abuse is not a significant cause of society's problems. Instead, alcohol abuse is a result of the same dislocating forces that cause other social problems. In this view, pursuing abstinence from alcohol is, at best, a roundabout route to personal and social improvement. Reduction of social problems will require direct attention to the causes of dislocation and helping people adapt to those forms of dislocation that are truly inevitable.

There is much exploration to be done of the scientific evidence that supports this way of thinking, the practical implications that it suggests, and the new puzzles that it raises. But, however this particular approach measures up in the long run, I am convinced that our most urgent task now is to develop an alternative to the outworn temperance mentality that will enable us to think creatively about alcohol abuse and social problems once again.

 

Dr. Bruce K. Alexander is Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. A respected writer on the subject, he is the author of, among other publications, Peaceful Measures: Canada's Way Out of the War on Drugs (1990) and can be contacted at alexande@sfu.ca.

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