The irony in stigma shown toward those with alcoholism

[This is the fourth part in a series that examines what stigma looks like and how it damages those who receive it.]

In July 2021, the Atlantic published an article that came right to the point in its title: America Has a Drinking Problem.

“Few things are more American than drinking heavily,” author Kate Julian wrote. When taking history into account, she is right.

For instance, John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, made a fortune smuggling wine and Madeira (wine mixed with rum) into the colonies to avoid paying British taxes. When British officials seized Hancock’s ship, the Liberty, he was charged with smuggling 100,000 gallons of alcoholic drink.

Fellow patriot Sam Adams led the Sons of Liberty to a harbor, where they plundered British ships, throwing tons of tea into the ocean during the Boston Tea Party. However, before they committed the act, they got drunk on a fraction of the rum the British ships were carrying. The rum was not thrown into the harbor. John Adams drank hard cider every morning with breakfast; the hero Paul Revere, on his famous Midnight Ride, stopped at every inn and tavern along his route, ale was his beverage of choice at every stop.

What history carefully keeps out of the textbooks is that the vast majority of the U.S. “Founding Fathers” were alcoholics, and a major contributor to the Revolution was anger over British taxes on alcohol. America was founded in part on the rum trade.

Katie Feuerstein, writing for Assess Health, in March 2022, wrote that the fight against alcohol abuse is one of America’s longest sagas, from the settlers who only landed at Plymouth Rock because their ship was running low on beer to Prohibition and the modern day.

In her article, Toxic Drinking Culture Haunts The American “Normal,” Feuerstein points out that “The Alcohol Rehab Guide, in its online article, Alcohol in Popular Culture, echoes Kate Julian, stating: Depictions of alcohol use in popular culture has led to an unhealthy glorification of alcohol that encourages dangerous drinking habits.”

The Rehab Guide elaborates on this:

Popular culture has a significant influence over people’s behaviors and decision-making processes, including when it comes to alcohol, the Rehab Guide points out. According to Social Learning Theory, people learn from personal experiences and are influenced by behavior that they witness or are exposed to in other formats, such as movies, television, music, social media, magazines and advertisements. This gives alcohol brands multiple popular culture mediums to advertise their products and suggest drinking behaviors to potential consumers, particularly younger audiences.

The guide goes on to report that a study out of Northwestern University found that 22.4% of songs on the Billboard’s Hot 100 list mentioned alcohol. Another study by Boston University and Johns Hopkins University looked at Billboard’s listings of the most popular songs from 2009-2011. They identified 720 songs, with 167 (23.2%) of them mentioning alcohol.

It comes as no surprise then, that while the U.S. has one of the lowest alcohol consumption rates among first-world countries, per capita, this country also has a higher rate of alcohol abuse than others. Statistics show that more than 15 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder, and heavy drinking is linked to 95,000 deaths every year. Approximately 414,000 adolescents aged 12-17 years, had an AUD in 2019.

With more than 15 million Americans having an AUD, that number reports just those who have been diagnosed or are receiving treatment. It is ironic, then, in a culture so saturated with heavy drinking, those who develop an AUD are stigmatized. Stigma of those with an AUD is, at its foundation, hypocrisy.

Cupertino High School’s student-run news magazine, The Prospector, in December 2021, contained an article, On the Societal Acceptance of Alcohol: The hypocrisy surrounding general perceptions of alcohol consumption, brought the issue of stigma toward AUD into sharp focus, stating that “while alcohol consumption is common and even encouraged in many social settings, society can be hypocritical in its treatment of people from specific backgrounds and those who over-consume.”

A study published in Scotland in, 2002, titled, Attitudes Towards Alcohol: Views of the General Public, Problem Drinkers, Alcohol Service Users and their Family and Friends, reported that the issue of recognition of a (drinking) problem is complex, being influenced by the context within which the drinking is done. For example, one participant’s social life was based on drinking — ‘being drunk’ was common among his friends and, because of this, he felt that he did not have a problem as, in his eyes, he could continue to function in his ‘normal’ daily routine.

“This links to a general perception of hypocrisy surrounding ‘alcoholism’ and ‘alcohol problems,” the study states. “The research suggests that because excessive drinking and drunkenness are, to some extent, accepted as normal, anyone who seeks help for alcohol-related issues is suggesting that their problem is somehow worse than others, when this might not be the case.”

For example, one woman spoke of how a neighbor commented on her husband’s ‘alcohol problem’ in a derogatory manner, yet the neighbor showed a similar pattern of drinking behavior and suffered similar consequences. In fact, the only difference between the two was that her husband had sought help and her neighbor had not.

Research suggests, then, that people who stigmatize those with AUD may do so out of fear that someone seeking treatment is a reflection of themselves.


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