Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Moral Dilemma Of Alcohol Exposure

Before anyone schools me about Prohibition - I give lectures on Prohibition. I know it doesn't work and I know the reasons why. I also know that talking about restricting intoxicants in any way is counter to the current zeitgeist of liberalizing their availability.

I also treat alcoholics and I know how that works. When I see Minnesota's largest and most famous retailer opening up large and attractive liquor stores where there used to be not so attractive foods courts and positioning it right across from the cash registers - I know that will be a problem for a lot of people trying to stay sober. I know that for many people in recovery - an attractive liquor store in their favorite retail store or grocery store creates a very high probability of relapse - even if they know that relapse may result in death or severe disability. In Minnesota liquor stores hours is another issue. In states where liquor sales are prohibited like Minnesota, it is incentive to drive across the border into bordering states in order to buy alcohol. A modification is the availability of low alcohol content beer from grocery stores and gas stations.

Another proxy measure for relapse risk would be the total number of bars in each state.  That data is harder to get.  I have information from a tavern owner that the business organization representing them sets the maximum number at 1 tavern or bar per 500 people, but the actual limits are subject to local jurisdiction.  In reality the maximum tavern/bar concentrations occur in North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, and South Dakota ranging from 1621 - 2268 people per tavern/bar.  At the lower end Virginia ranks 50th at 64,773 people per tavern/bar. (US Census Bureau Data per The Forum).

Are retailers that desperate that they all need to compete in this low margin business? Why are governments in this business at all? I know that there are vocal people everywhere who argue for their unalienable right to intoxicants. One of the main arguments has always been that the vast majority of people can drink and not incur any problems from it. What about the people who cannot? Binge drinking, alcohol poisoning, and excessive alcohol use are all major public health problems according to the CDC. The direct and indirect cost of excessive drinking in the US is about $249 billion in direct and indirect costs.

One of the main arguments of cannabis advocates is how dangerous alcohol is. Alcohol costs $1.90 per drink according to the CDC in complications from drinking. That cost is probably artificially low because treatment and detoxification from alcohol is rationed and most people don't get anywhere near the level of treatment they need. In Twin Cities metro hospitals - drug and alcohol use can account for up to 60% of admissions. Potential consumer advocates in this case belong to an organization that values anonymity and as far as I know has not been very politically active.

The CDC (Community Preventive Services Task Force) suggests that alcohol excise taxes need to be increased, alcohol outlet density needs to be decreased, hours of sales need to be decreased rather than increased, and retailers need to be held liable for damages caused by underage or intoxicated drinkers. The tax suggestion reminds me of the general theory of sin taxes and why they really don't work from a governing standpoint. It basically generates money for politicians to spend and is typically diverted away from any stated use that involves treating complications of the activity.

To me the alcohol issue is much bigger than who sells it, but governments have a big problem at the moral and public health levels. Just carrying forward the CDC recommendations invites rhetorical response about prohibition or temperance. I have found myself in illogical arguments with both individuals and families about the right to drink oneself to death. Make no mistake about it, the issue was not suicide - just continuing to drink with advanced liver disease and repeated hospitalizations for bleeding problems and encephalopathy due to advancing liver disease and the associated anatomical and physiological changes.

At its base, the alcohol problems and tolerating excessive alcohol use is a cultural problem. In the Midwest where binge drinking is most prominent, teenagers start drinking in middle school. In many areas it is a rite of passage. Even though the majority of people don't drink. It is very difficult to find social settings that are alcohol free. Alcohol use in most settings is promoted as the social norm with the exception of a few subcultures. Barring a widespread cultural movement that promotes moderation or abstinence, it appears that the usual educational measures about the dangers of alcohol use will be the primary intervention point. Secondary and tertiary prevention depends on a robust system of care for alcohol use and that currently does not exist. In some cases close monitoring by the correctional system for people with DWI infractions can be effective, but that does not address either the group of people who do not come to legal attention or those for which legal intervention is not a deterrent.  It also does not provide long term solutions to the problem of continued alcohol use.

Despite all of the current hype about how some intoxicants are wonder drugs and the ongoing arguments about legalization of all or most intoxicants - I can't help but see this as another moral dilemma. The will of the many basically writing off the serious problems of the few. This often plays out in families where one member clearly has a severe drinking problem and the others (usually a spouse) refuses to not drink in front of them or not have alcohol available in the home.  It all comes down to the rationalization that everyone can control their drinking or that drinking can be seen as bad behavior and that is obviously not true.

The moral dilemma of increasing alcohol availability or the government sanctioned availability of any intoxicant is the same.  It is based on the theory that people in general can use these intoxicants without damaging other members of society or themselves to the point that they do not become a cost to the rest of society.  That essentially writes off the group of people with uncontrolled use who cannot do that.  American society traditionally handles that problem by punishment and rationing availability of treatment and detox services.  Functional detox services staffed by physicians are practically unheard of.  Contrary to that guy in your freshman philosophy course who doubted the meaning of everything - moral philosophers can also add a perspective here.  Consider this quote from Blackburn about the nature of moral knowledge:

"There are countless small unpretentious things that we know with perfect certainty.  Happiness is preferable to misery, and dignity is better than humiliation.  It is bad that people suffer and worse if a culture turns a blind eye to their suffering.  Death is worse than life; the attempt to find a common point of view is better than a manipulative contempt for it." (1).

The availability and treatment of alcohol related problems in American society on one hand and the motivation to profit from it on the other hand seems to stand Blackburn's quote on its ear.  In the US there is a clear blind eye approach to alcoholism.

It may be time to come up with a better plan for living.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Simon Blackburn.  Being Good - A Short Introduction To Ethics.  Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK. p. 134.


Liquor store density is from Health Indicators Warehouse at and is in the public domain.  This graphic was generated on that site. (click to enlarge)

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