By Froma Harrop
An unapologetic drinker, writer H.L. Mencken blamed Prohibition on American moralists’ distaste for happiness. “A Puritan is not against bullfighting because of the pain it gives the bull,” he wrote, “but because of the pleasure it gives the spectators.”
Today’s neo-prohibitionists know that fist-banging sermons about demon rum sound dated, so they’ve medicalized the warnings: Alcohol causes cancer and insanity. And they bury research showing the medical benefits of moderate drinking under extremely low-ball definitions of “moderate.”
“Does alcohol make you fat?” is an incarnation recently aired in The Wall Street Journal. Half the experts quoted warn that drinking alcohol puts weight on. The other half said that it helps control weight.
The cautioners belong to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It should surprise no one that an institute so named would not smile on the fruit of the vineyards.
Before we go on, a disclaimer. Alcoholism is a curse, and those so afflicted must learn to not drink at all. But for non-alcoholics, drinking should be the imbiber’s business, assuming of course that the person is not driving while inebriated.
Ironically, the neo-prohibitionist approach may be counterproductive to the problem of drunken driving. The national blood-alcohol limit for drivers has been continually lowered to the current 0.08 percent. But the hideous cases of drunken driving almost always involve motorists way beyond that limit.
In Seattle last March, a driver with a preliminary breath-alcohol level of 0.22 killed a couple and seriously injured two young family members as they crossed a street. That’s three times the legal limit. And as is often learned in such tragedies, the driver was a repeat offender, arrested twice in the previous months for drunken driving.
Critics of demands for still lower blood-alcohol limits argue that they pull harmless social drinkers into the dragnet, wasting resources better spent on putting the hard-core offenders behind bars. The founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) quit the organization in 1985 for what she charged was one such neo-prohibitionist turn.
“I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol,” Candy Lightner said. “I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”
Back at the debate over drinking and weight, puritanical thinking often bubbles up from an evident concern for health. Consider the research cited in the journal Physiology &Behavior that alcohol may enhance “the short-term rewarding effects of consuming food.” What’s wrong with that? Besides, wine cultures — Italy and France, for example — tend to have slender people.
Perhaps wine marries well with healthy food choices, as in the Mediterranean diet. Perhaps moderate alcohol consumption relaxes those who overeat as a response to stress.
The Wall Street Journal referenced studies at the Harvard Medical School suggesting that alcohol in moderation actually helps maintain weight. Researcher Eric Rimm noted that after drinking alcohol, people’s heart rate rose, causing them to burn more calories. The increase in calorie burning was small, he carefully added, and that desire to lose weight is not reason to drink.
Another theory is that female drinkers eat fewer sweet foods because alcohol arouses the same pleasure center in the brain as do sugary things. Again, that darn pleasure center. (Sorry, guys, the jury’s still out on how you react.)
Good science accepts that temperate drinking protects somewhat against heart disease and has been associated with a lower risk for dementia. And the Nurses’ Health Study found that while alcohol does raise the risk for breast cancer, adequate intake of folic acid may cancel it.
If you can drink responsibly and want to, go ahead. Just don’t say you enjoy it.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org