It is the high season of summer, which is also known as “patio season”. The long days and light evenings beckon people to stay outside as long as possible and invites casual dining al fresco. Patio season is also associated with enjoying an alcoholic beverage or two; perhaps a really cold pint of beer, a glass of wine, a pitcher of Sangria, or a classy gin and tonic. But this is a recent phenomenon. Not too long ago, drinking alcohol in public was shunned and only acceptable either in a bar, the comfort of home, or the occasional cocktail party. Now, the consumption is alcohol in public is far more accepted—even encouraged.
But people’s relationship with alcohol goes back further than one might imagine. In fact, it starts at the earliest point of human civilization. The theory goes that if it wasn’t for alcohol, we humans wouldn’t be who we are today, because the fermentation of grain or fruit made water safe to drink, free from the pathogens that would kill us otherwise. Alcohol also created an efficient source of calories in early diets, which helped humans develop the brain and body power that gave homo sapiens an advantage over other species. Another theory is that early on, people recognized that alcohol made them happy and helped to create a shared experience that forged close societal bonds.
Nevertheless, the patterns of alcohol consumption throughout history show that there has always been both positive and negative perspectives about it. The positive aspects of booze range from being associated with artistic inspiration, happy celebrations, and even an integral part of cultures themselves. Just imagine the Scots without whiskey, the Caribbean without rum, or the French without Champagne! Conversely, drinking alcohol—especially to the point of becoming drunk—has been viewed throughout history as a vice, not a virtue, and much research has been devoted to the subject. The attitudes that looked down on the notorious drunken feasts of ancient Rome carried on through the ages in some form or another and persist today. Drunkenness in women was something that was especially frowned upon. Various religious groups throughout the world, from Muslims to Mormons, also condemn alcohol, and the scourge of drunkenness was behind the Prohibition and Temperance movements.
This doesn’t mean we have shunned alcohol. Far from it. Unlike the vice of smoking, which has become the pariah of habits in western society (thanks to government and health campaigns making it far less attractive than it used to be) similar measures have not been applied to alcohol. In fact, the availability of alcohol and the amount of advertising for booze has significantly increased from the late twentieth century until now, most notably a large increase in stealth advertising for alcoholic beverages through sponsorship deals for cultural and sporting events. It is almost unfathomable to think that Big Tobacco would be allowed to sponsor such events these days, but, somehow, alcohol has become more normalized than it ever was, and this trend shows no sign of stopping.
Because alcohol is an easily obtainable and legal drug, it is seen as an acceptable way to self- medicate for busy and stressed people. From the harangued mother who needs a glass of wine after the kids are in bed, to the career professional who sees cracking open a cold one a necessary part of networking—and yes, this includes the phenomenon of “patio season”– alcohol is the drug of choice for many, and its acceptance seems to be growing in popularity with the widespread use of caffeine. Even the internet is full of memes glorifying alcohol, typified by the jokes about “wine o’clock” or “beer-thirty.”
But this is not to say that the consumption of alcohol is without its cautions. According to studies by the Social Institute Research Centre and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, binge-drinking is increasing at an alarming rate, especially among women and youth. Even the perception of alcohol is changing dramatically: to where most people feel no shame at all at consuming alcohol either in public or in their home. Despite the studies warning people against the dangers of over-consumption, there is a lot of confusing research. Some is about how much is too much, with another equally large body of research saying that regularly imbibing has a lot of health benefits. So, who do we believe?
Again, there is not an easy answer. It all seems to boil down to personal choice and personal values. The general advice seems to be to stick within the medically accepted guidelines for weekly units of alcohol and try to have more days per week that you are alcohol-free versus those days where you do have a drink. The generally-accepted advice tends to agree that if you feel that your alcohol consumption is getting out of control, making you feel like you’re having health, financial or relationship issues directly caused by your drinking, you should seek professional help.
Of course, this all seems like common sense—we should automatically know this. And yet, somehow, sensibilities get overridden by the allure of alcohol. But let me ask you this; could you go for an entire month without drinking? That may just be a really huge ask—and for many people, it seems almost impossible without a great deal of difficulty. But having a dry month is behind a campaign by the UK charity Alcohol Concern, that calls for people to have a break from the sauce for thirty continuous days. Although this might seem like just another marketing campaign by a charity, it is gaining momentum partly due to national print, radio and television ads in the British media. Medical professionals are also giving wholehearted support to the campaign because they are seeing an alarming increase in liver problems and addiction.
But is this campaign really necessary? Or is it just another tactic designed create a lot of guilt about the lifestyle choices that people make? The short answer is: it depends. The problem with alcohol (pun intended) is that prevailing attitudes toward it depend on the society and culture that one belongs to. But no matter how you personally view alcohol, the fact remains that it is still mainly identified as a drug with side effects—not just a beverage. If you are going to drink alcohol, please do so responsibly.
[Still looking for a New Year’s resolution? This student-voted article, first published at the beginning of August, might be just the idea you were searching for! A somewhat deeper dive into a topic, I enjoy getting this type of article in my mailbox, and so it’s great to see that they resonate with Voice readers as well.]