This spring, I went to see Book Club with my mom. The movie stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen as four longtime friends whose lives (sex and otherwise) are reinvigorated thanks to a their latest book club pick: the Fifty Shades trilogy. The plot is frothy, the sets are lush, and the alcohol is everywhere.
Around the 30-minute mark, it became difficult to focus on the plot. Alcohol’s outsized role was too distracting. Would there be a scene where someone wasn’t drinking? (Eventually, yes, but only because, unlike our protagonists, that character was a nag. Also, she was pregnant.) At one point, during a pivotal bonding/venting book club session, the foursome consume three bottles of wine and half a bottle of vodka in what looks like one sitting. Was this secretly a movie about four alcoholics?
Alcohol flows through this country’s veins; In 2015, the average American’s booze intake, in terms of pure ethanol, was 2.3 gallons. In my corner of Brooklyn, it can feel even more prominent: when winter finally gave way to spring this year, the entire neighborhood celebrated by pouring itself a cold one. I happily joined the festivities, drinking pints of beer on restaurant patios and knocking back paper cups of wine on blankets in the park.
As I approach the age of 30, my days of drinking to get drunk are mostly behind me. I rarely have more than two drinks in a given day, and have long considered myself a moderate drinker. According to the federal government — which defines moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day for women and two for men — this is wishful thinking. Two-beer nights quickly add up: I can easily rack up more than 12 drinks in a given week.
Given a recent surge of news stories that have linked alcohol to breast cancer, questioned the health benefits of even light and moderate drinking, and exposed the alcohol industry’s aggressive role in selling us on this connection in the first place, it seems the rosé-colored glasses may soon be coming off.
Of course, a few troubling headlines probably won’t be enough to discourage most people from hitting the sauce, because life is hard and enjoying a glass (or two, or three) is part of a rewarding existence, god dammit. This is a strategy deployed by most of my friends. It’s also heartily championed by the alcohol industry, which spends hundreds of millions a year to convincing us that alcohol and living a good, meaningful life are inextricably intertwined. Book Club might be a particularly glaring example, but alcohol’s strong associations with celebration, fun, and generally not being a buzzkill are in large part crafted and disseminated by the alcohol industry. “How we view drinking as a culture is not accidental,” says James D. Sargent, a professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine who has co-authored multiple studies on the effects that alcohol advertising has on drinking habits. “It’s been carefully scripted for us by the alcohol industry, in ads we’ve seen since we were little kids.”
More insidiously, it’s increasingly apparent this campaign extends far beyond advertising. Alcohol companies have systematically worked to shape the way research about drinking is conducted and presented. In June, an ambitious government trial meant to uncover the health effects of moderate drinking was shut down after it was revealed alcohol companies had not only funded the trial, but played a hand in its design. This is just one instance of corporate money influencing science, says Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria who has co-authored a meta-analysis on drinking’s impact on health.
The industry, Stockwell says, “creates organizations and think-tanks that look as if they are very respectful and independent and impartial” such as the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), which funds and promotes research that links moderate drinking with protective health benefits. Many of these studies have since been called into question due to baked-in design flaws such as “abstainer bias,” where in some trials, the control group of alcohol-abstainers, against whom the moderate drinkers are measured, includes former heavy drinkers and those who don’t drink because of health conditions, which can have the effect of inflating the perceived benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.
Given all that I now know, admitting how much I like or rely on drinking feels dirty, but here we go anyway: I like drinking, and, yes, I often rely on it. Few things rival a glass of wine after meeting a deadline. As an anxious introvert, the soothing ritual of sipping a drink while attempting to make small talk at a party is by no means something I’m ready to let go of. And yet burying my head in the sand and carrying on as if a default drink or two a day is good for me feels bad, too. Talking about any of this with friends, likely at a bar or somewhere else where drinks are being served, feels worst of all.
For some clarity, I turned to Gabrielle Glaser, a journalist who has written extensively about drinking habits (including in her 2013 book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control). I wanted a concrete answer to the question, “How many drinks could I have in a day?” Instead, she proceeded to force me to have a nuanced conversation about my drinking habits and hers, and how moderation depends on the person. She spoke about the many pleasures of drinking, while advocating for parameters — alcohol can easily become a crutch, she believes, particularly for women.
“Have a drinking plan for your week,” Glaser tells me. This should include capping the overall number of drinks you consume, never drinking before a certain time of day, and designating multiple days where you don’t drink at all. “Give your liver a break, give your brain a break, give your evenings a break where you are able to fully focus and remember every single word of the book you are reading,” she says. “Be more present.”
Now that she’s older than she once was, she adds, alcohol’s link to cancer — particularly breast cancer — is also in the “back of my mind these days, but I don’t want to be fear-mongering about it, either.”
Tim Stockwell is more blunt about the dangers of even moderate drinking. “Alcohol has a toxic effect on human tissue,” he says. Indeed, the World Health Organization classifies alcohol as a known carcinogen. Any amount of drinking increases risk of cancer, if only slightly. For the record, Stockwell isn’t ruling out the fact that moderate drinking also has protective benefits, particularly for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. He just believes these might have been overstated by poorly designed trials, which simultaneously underrepresented the health risks.
I was surprised to find that, despite his own research and encyclopedic knowledge of alcohol’s ill effects, Stockwell is a moderate drinker who consumes up to nine or 10 drinks a week (although typically he sticks to three or four). “I like to drink. I love wine, I love beer,” he says. Drinking remains “a very real pleasure,” he says. Some of life’s best moments involve “connecting with people and feeling good. Alcohol helps with that, there’s no doubt.”
But thanks to the strength of the evidence about its risks, “I’m more cautious, because it worries me. It’s a small risk, and I am prepared to take it, but less often than I used to be.”
I found these contradictions refreshing. Conversations about drinking are often neater. Either we are giving it up, or entertaining the possibility, because of its harmful effects, or we’re throwing caution to the wind and making plans to get happy hour after work where we can get three drinks for the price of one. “You rarely hear from people who have discovered a middle road,” Gabrielle Glaser says. “We love drama, either from the ‘OMG, I get loaded every night and I don’t care because I’m having fun,’ or ‘I am newly sober.’”
At one point, during a pivotal bonding/venting book club session, the foursome consume three bottles of wine and half a bottle of vodka in what looks like one sitting. Was this secretly a movie about four alcoholics?
Without more nuanced (if less engaging) portrayals of drinking, it can be hard topic to broach. A couple friends have voiced concerns about their own consumption, but my guess is that wary of being labeled an addict and unwilling to give up drinking entirely, these conversations remained light, near the surface of the subject.
To Glaser, that’s a damn shame. Developing a healthy relationship with alcohol starts by being honest about its pleasures and drawbacks, and sharing strategies that help achieve balance. For many people, that’s sobriety. For some of us, it’s making sure drinking doesn’t become a lifestyle, and remains a controlled activity. (“It’s a little bit like the pollution that comes from burning fossil fuel,” Sargent says. “There are good things about having a car and driving around, and there are not such good things.”)
My solution to all of this is, as Glaser predicted, pretty boring. I try not to exceed seven drinks a week, and not drink at all at least two nights a week. I’ve mostly stopped drinking on nights I don’t go out, and save multiple glasses of wine for social settings where I’m relaxing with friends or need a buffer against the social anxiety of small talk. My life hasn’t radically transformed, although there are subtle changes: I’m more hesitant to make plans with people who stress me out, as nine times out of ten, this leads to more drinking than I’m comfortable with. Instead, I’m more likely to make plans with the people with whom I’m comfortable drinking less, or not at all.
It feels good to recognize that while for me, drinking is too fun and soothing to give up entirely, there are many compelling reasons to do it less often. Like most things in life, drinking “doesn’t just have to be one thing or the other,” Stockwell says. We’re not characters in a movie, as much as the alcohol industry would like us to be.