In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled, “America Has a Drinking Problem,” author Kate Julian begins by pointing out alcohol consumption in the U.S. has risen steadily since 2000, and the longstanding societal effects of COVID-19 have shifted our nation’s drinking habits in the ‘more so’ direction. “(Prior to the pandemic) you might have been able to buy wine at the supermarket, but you couldn’t drink it in the supermarket. Now some grocery stores have wine bars, beer on tap, signs inviting you to ‘shop ’n’ sip,’ and carts with cup holders. (And) drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be: Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol.”
Indeed, besides statistics showing alcohol-related deaths having significantly risen in the past 20 years (per an analysis by the National Institutes of Health), since the pandemic began both the frequency of drinking and hard alcohol sales have increased. Additionally, more than one fourth of American adults reported they’d drunk more alcohol in the past year as a means of coping with pandemic-related stress.
Now, while Ms. Julian does attempt to personalize her inquiry into what looks, for all intents and purposes, to be a national drinking problem, by asking and answering a number of salient questions—“Am I drinking too much?” How much are other people drinking?” and “Is alcohol actually that bad?”—she also dips into the biology and physiology of drinking (“Why do we drink?”) and goes on a literature review-based “deep dive” into the history of alcohol and its place in our cultural evolution.
However, the consequences of drinking wreaked on so many of our lives—I count myself as one who can relate to so much of what she reports and describes, having been in recovery 23 years—are ultimately identified for what they are. She writes, “The damage done by alcohol is profound: impaired cognition and motor skills, belligerence, injury, and vulnerability to all sorts of predation in the short run; damaged livers and brains, dysfunction, addiction, and early death as years of heavy drinking pile up.”
And though no specific “solutions” are offered, Ms. Julian points out how the isolation and our country’s response to it (obviously caused by the COVID-19 pandemic) has taken its toll and, for the time being, will continue to. “Physical and mental health are inextricably linked, as is made vivid by the overwhelming quantity of research showing how devastating isolation is to longevity. Stunningly, the health toll of social disconnection is estimated to be equivalent to the toll of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
As part of her “history of alcohol” research, Ms. Julian brings forward the relevance of a recently published book by Edward Slingerland, professor at the University of British Columbia, tiled, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.
She concludes her piece, “After more than a year in relative isolation, we may be closer than we’d like to the wary, socially clumsy strangers who first gathered at Göbekli Tepe” (an ancient temple in Turkey, where, according to Slingerland’s research, people gathered around huge brewing vats 12,000 years ago to ‘party’). His concluding quote, though, is both thought-provoking and cautionary: “We get drunk because we are a weird species, the awkward losers of the animal world… and need all of the help we can get.”