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Do we force people to drink who shouldn’t?

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I’ve railed and ranted before at every attack on wine that’s hidden behind the excuse of “preventing alcoholism.” (See some of my stuff about the Marin Institute.) I usually think there’s a hidden agenda coming from a neo-prohibitionist lobby that wouldn’t mind outlawing alcohol all over again — a disaster last time we tried it, and it would be just as disastrous if we did it again, for the same reasons why the “war on drugs” has been a disaster.

But I digress. Yesterday, I came across this blog, written by a psychologist, Sarah Allen Benton, and entited The Great Wine Myth. After my first read-through, I thought, “There they go again, the anti-wine fanatics. Why do they get so upset that some of us like wine?” But then I read it a second time, and a third.

I’ll give Ms. Benton this: she’s got a point, although she’s also wide of the mark in some respects. I’ll get to her point in a minute, but first: Where I disagree with her is when she says there’s a problem with people who feel they’re being compelled to drink wine against their will, even though they don’t want to. For example, she writes, “I am hearing from those struggling with alcohol problems, that their friends are encouraging them to drink wine with them at their homes or at restaurants-ignoring the fact that their individual has a drinking problem. During dinner parties, glasses are filled and re-filled without guests even noticing or being able to keep track.”

Well, a couple things. First of all, I don’t see why these dinner party guests who don’t want to drink can’t just tell their host, “No thank you, I’d much prefer a nice cold glass of water,” or something like that. Nobody’s twisting anybody’s arm to drink at a party or in a restaurant. And not keeping track? If you know you can’t handle more than a glass, then you need help if you’re downing five. Of course, if the person who’s constantly refilling their guest’s glass knows that the guest has a drinking problem, then that person is a total idiot — and the guest might want to rethink the friendship. Friends don’t make friends who are alcoholics drink.

I also don’t quite get it when Benton writes about patients who complain that “every social function that they attend revolves around drinking, particularly wine and that they feel like they won’t fit in if they are not drinking.” Again, what ever happened to self-control? Isn’t it possible for these people to politely decline wine? I don’t know anybody who would resent or feel weird about a friend who didn’t feel like drinking alcohol at a social function. I have alcoholics in my family (more than one), and when we get together, the rest of us drink all we want to, the alcoholics don’t, and nobody blames anyone for anything. The lines are clearly drawn, and if there’s mutual respect and understanding, there’s no problem.

But Benton makes some good points. Her title, “The Great Wine Myth,” alludes to the fact that there probably is a tendency among some people to think that wine is somehow different from beer or hard liquor — that it’s cleaner, or healthier, or more refined than, say, a shot of cheap Scotch or malt liquor. Wine may be more refined in a cultural sense, but Benton’s point is that alcohol is alcohol, regardless of if “you are sipping on Chardonnay or chugging a 40-ounce beer in a paper bag.” That’s true. I myself drink more than most people would consider healthy. So do lots of people I know in the wine industry. I’m aware of the deleterious effects of alcohol, including calories. That’s why I hit the gym regularly, eat right and take good care of my body. And I would never, ever insist that a guest in my home drink wine, unless they were eager to do so.

So, bottom line: You wrote a generally fair essay, Ms. Benton. You made some good points. People should be incredibly sensitive to their guests’ needs and limitations. It’s called politeness, and it’s a human value as old as time.

  1. …except that she has obliterated the decades–centuries–of work on alcoholism as a disease, and not as a social or personal failure on the part of the alcoholic.

    I say “centuries” because the first to recognize the disease was Doctor Benjamin Rush–Thomas Jefferson’s personal friend.

  2. I have had alcoholics in my family as well and the dynamic is quite different than interacting with alcoholics that don’t know you.

    My entire perspective on alcoholism changed when I saw John Spencer’s character Leo describe alcoholism on The West Wing – an excellent scene that I will never forget:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ma3d-YdLjCs

    It’s worth a look.

  3. Thank you for your blog post about my blog- I appreciate your open mind in terms of the point that I was trying to get across. I do agree with your point that people should take responsibility for their drinking and be able say “no, I would not like more wine”. However, I have been told by many people without alcohol problems that they have noticed at dinner parties hosts and others tend to keep wine flowing and then inhibitions are lost and the guest ends up drinking more than intended. Some report that wine “goes down so easily” and it does! I am certainly not saying that people should not drink wine- I am just encouraging mindfulness.

  4. The most interesting part of that article to me was the sense of pressure that some alcoholics feel. The notion that all parties are about drinking is just so alien to those of us who do drink. We do not go to parties to drink–do we? But we do drink, and the better the booze, whether wine or whisky, the better I like it.

    I have two close friends who do not drink–one because of diabetes and one because he needed to stop. Both of these folks are very relaxed about their non-drinking. Yes, they would both like a drink, and I suppose it is different from the way I want a cigarette even though I have not had one in a couple of decades.

    But the folks that Dr. Benton describes seem to feel far more pressure in social situations, and it seems to me that both the person with the problem and the persons who are serving the alcohol must act responsibly. Self-control by the individual has to be the first step. We as hosts are also at fault if we push people to drink.

  5. Sarah, thanks. We should all be more mindful of everything these days. Still, I don’t understand why a guest would permit himself or herself to drink more than they know is good for them. If the host doesn’t know the circumstances, what’s she to do? So people have to take responsibility for themselves in that kind of situation. I myself know exactly what my limit is, and once I reach it, I never have a problem saying, “No, thanks” — no matter how good the wine is!

  6. Mindfulness, indeed. When one has a chronic disease, especially one as serious and potentially destructive as alcoholism, one has a personal responsibility to one’s self and one’s family and friends to manage that disease. “Peer pressure made me do it” is a lame enough excuse in high school and college; in supposedly mature adults – especially ones that know they have the disease – it is inexcusable. And for a host to offer someone they know to be an alcoholic a drink? even a half glass of wine? That’s equally irresponsible. Like Leo says in the West Wing clip Jon linked to: “alcoholics don’t have one drink. …my brain works differently.”

    I know this sounds like I’m hectoring, but I have a problem with the “blame the server” mentality – it can be taken too far. I’ve been a bartender, and run a tasting venue – I understand my responsibilities and liabilities. I never set a glass in front of someone without asking them what they want in it first, and knowing their age if they ask for alcohol, assessing whether they are already inebriated, knowing whether or not there is a sober designated driver, and having something non-alcoholic to serve so they can still feel social with a glass in their hand. If the ABC ever mandates that I ask if they have a drinking probelm before I serve them, I will do that too.

    All that said, I understand that the average casual party host may not be thinking of these issues. And I do think it is problematic when drinking wine is presented in the media as a cure for heart disease or as a way to keep the pounds off, or as any other sort of panacea. I have a great deal of empathy for the pressure such characterizations must put on people who choose not to drink alcohol for moral/religious reasons, as well as on those who cannot drink for health reasons. It can be hard to say “no, thanks” – we should each be mindful not to make it harder.

  7. Steve,

    You make some excellent points as does Ms. Benton. I am not a psychologist, but I’m assuming here that many people who can’t say “no” and take responsibility for their actions are the very people who run into difficulties to begin with. You, me, and many other responsible wine drinkers/social drinkers know our limit and “just say no.” I’m speculating the psychological make up of many (not all) people with alcohol problems is such that they find it difficult to say no or make that decision about “have I had too much?” Thus, it’s a “catch 22″ situation for them – the very issue that makes them “alcohol dependent” is the very thing that prevents them from speaking up.

    While many of us have no issue or problem speaking up, saying no, saying yes, and spouting off at a moment’s notice (hence, my comments here), there are many people who do not have this ability. Usually stemming from whatever issues they-their parents-their teachers-their friends – have saddled themselves with from birth – whether low self esteem, lack of confidence, lack of love, too much love, you name it. Our society is full of people with issues, and while, yes, I believe each person should take responsibility, in our “hand out,” politically correct society, laden with experts telling everyone “it’s not your fault,” I’m certain some people find it difficult to deal and find saying “no” is not easy, particularly given what they feel is peer pressure and a need to fit in and be with, what their mind is telling them, is the “in” crowd.

    Richard.

    PS: Steve, you’ve been forcing me to drink for years – I was a teetotaler until I started reading your blog… OK, only kidding!

  8. Richard, I think you made some good points. And I’m glad I forced you to drink — just keep it in moderation!

  9. John, the media does tend to hype the “wine cures everything” medical issue, but I read the S.F. Chronicle every day, and as often as there’s a pro-wine medical report, there’s another one that says the evidence wasn’t as clear as thought, or that wine actually increases some risks, etc. etc. So in general, I think the media does the best it can, in this very complicated area.

  10. Steve Boyer says:

    Sarah Allen Bentons blog is interesting from several perspectives.

    Her conclusions fit in with someone trained to see drinking alcohol of any kind as a problem. while I agree with the point that wine is no different than hard liquor or beer, her blog seem to skip past the point that not everybody has problems with alcohol. Statements such as “if you are frequently drinking bottles of wine at a country club or often slamming back shots at a local dive bar, you have the same problem.” The assumption seems to be that drinking alcohol is the problem, not people with a problem that drink.

    I also find it interesting that her premise is based on anecdotal evidence from problem drinkers (her patients), rather than from empirical studies that include non-problem drinkers. Very vague anecdotal suspicions warning of the dire effects of all alcohol for everybody do a disservice to individuals who have a real problem with alcohol as well as to individuals who do not.

    Blaming the wine in the glass, or the host/bartender for pouring it, or the winery for growing or making it, on and on ad infinitum is much easier than remembering that it is my hand that brings the glass to my lips.

  11. Well, I love wine and everyone knows that I serve wine at my home. But, when I have a gathering, I purchase sparkling cider and serve it in the same flutes as my guest who are drinking sparkling wine. I consider that being a good host, and making everyone feel a part of the gathering. Also, mock cocktails and sparkling and bottled water should be available. We are not responsible for others behavior, i.e. lack of restraint, but we can offer alternative drinks as a solution.

  12. Be Responsible !!! Simple really for some not for most…..

  13. I agree that a host who knowingly pushes alcohol on an alcoholic is a jerk. But that alcoholic needs to speak up. Otherwise, as the host sees it, they’re just providing good hospitality. I echo others when I say it’s a matter of personal responsibility to make sure your own glass is filled with something you can drink.

    Personally, while I love wine, I’m affected by it more easily than others seem to be. A glass or two and I have to stop, so I switch to water. People do notice, and ask “aren’t you drinking”, and I say “Yes, I’m enjoying this sparkling water.” I’ve never had anyone urge alcohol on me once I’ve stopped for the night.

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