Normalizing the Drinking of Alcohol
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Critics of advertising alcohol beverages often argue that it "normalizes" drinking alcohol beverages. Similarly, critics of the social norms marketing approach, an effective alcohol abuse prevention method that destroys exaggerated misperceptions about the extent of heavy drinking by publicizing the actual extent of use, argue that it "normalizes" alcohol consumption.
What, exactly, is the problem with normalizing alcohol?
There's nothing at all wrong with normalizing alcohol unless a person's goal is to eliminate drinking and replace it with abstinence. The hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation would have opposed normalizing alcohol. The Prohibition Party (yes, it still exists) would oppose normalizing alcohol. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) - it, too, still exists - would oppose normalizing alcohol. And well-funded anti-alcohol activist groups are today loudly opposing the normalization of alcohol.
Normalizing alcohol is nothing more than recognizing the fact that most people drink alcohol, that they do so in moderation, and that such use is a natural and normal part of the lifestyle of millions of people. Normalizing alcohol is presenting alcohol as acceptable if it isn't abused. The term is actually a poor one, because normalizing alcohol doesn't make something that is unnatural into something that is natural. It simply recognizes alcohol as normal and acceptable.
What's the alternative to normalizing alcohol?
The temperance writers and Prohibitionists have shown us the alternative to normalization; it is to portray drinking as a sign of weakness, as a symptom of personal or social ills, as an undesirable illegal behavior, as a cause of crime, and even as a sin. Anti-alcohol writers today tend to "de-normalize" alcohol by equating use with misuse and associating such misuse with a wide variety of personal and social problems. They also widely de-normalize alcohol by attempting to stigmatize it by equating it with illegal drugs and even referring to drinkers as drug users. In short, the effort is to make drinking unacceptable, to marginalize alcohol, and stigmatize those who consume it.
Societies that normalize drinking have fewer and less serious drinking problems than those that "abnormalize" it.
In some societies almost everyone drinks and they do so frequently, yet have few problems. Such groups include Italians, Jews, Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese. There are at least three keys to their success:
- The substance of alcohol is seen as essentially neutral; it is neither inherently good nor bad. It's neither a poison nor a magic elixir. What's important is how it's used.
- There are two equally acceptable choices. Abstain from alcohol or use it in moderation. Abstainers don't pressure drinkers and drinkers don't pressure abstainers. What's totally unacceptable is the abuse of alcohol by anyone for any reason at any time.
- Young people learn about alcohol from an early age within the safe environment of the home and from the parents, whose example they follow. These groups would all agree that it's better to learn about drinking in the parents house than in a fraternity house.
All of these groups normalize alcohol and it greatly benefits them and their members.
filed under: Abuse