Why Does Society Think I’m Some Kind of Freak for Abstaining From Alcohol?

Andrew Beale, AlterNet
Waking Times 

No one ever asks me why I don’t shoot heroin.

Everyone in my circle intuitively understands that heroin is extremely destructive. It’s highly addictive, disastrous for your health, there’s a huge risk of overdose — and the question of using it never comes up.

But in the nearly three years since I quit drinking, I’ve had to explain this decision more times than I can count. The funny thing about this is that alcohol is arguably more harmful than many illegal drugs, heroin included. Alcohol is one of the most addictive drugs ever discovered. It’s so addictive that heavy drinkers are at risk of death when they quit cold turkey, something that’s not true for the majority of other drugs. I find it truly strange that my decision not to use this substance is treated as strange, rather than the other way around.

Alcohol is also responsible for more deaths than any illegal drug, a fact you would never learn from studying drug-war propaganda. In fact, alcohol is responsible for more deaths than all illegal drugs combined. This is related to the fact that alcohol use is so widespread compared to illegal drugs (roughly 9% of Americans use illegal drugs compared to 66% that use alcohol). But surely some of the problem stems from the fact that being legal is often conflated with being safe.

Alcohol use is treated so differently from illegal drug use precisely because it has become so normalized in our society thanks to its status as a legal intoxicant. An open bar is considered almost a prerequisite for a wedding and asking someone out for a drink is one of the most common ways to begin a relationship.

The incredible amount of money spent on marketing campaigns, driven by the profit motive of international corporations, doesn’t help matters much. A large percentage, if not the majority, of alcohol advertisements are aimed at subtly normalizing unhealthy drinking behavior.

Take the famous Captain Morgan ad. This ad portrays a normal-looking young man who has chosen to drink at a bar rather than attend a wedding with his attractive blonde girlfriend. Dozens of bar patrons participate in his deception by acting out scenes from television programs, in order to help him trick his girlfriend into thinking he’s at home rather than at the bar. Their ability to think quickly and come up with a clever way to “help” their friend demonstrates that they’re all competent people capable of quick thinking, and the number of participants in the lie underscores the message that it’s normal to lie to your partner about your drinking habits. T

This type of alcohol ad is extremely common. Alcohol advertisements have along history of portraying alcohol as a tool to get sex, reinforcing the social perception that by lowering people’s inhibitions, alcohol makes it easier to get laid.

There’s also celebrity sponsorship. Justin Timberlake was recently named “creative director” of Bud Light Platinum, a move no one seems to object to. But remember the controversy when an old picture of Michael Phelps smoking weed turned up?

All these advertising efforts are an integral part of the alcohol industry’s campaign to lure in new and often underage customers and keep their existing customers drinking heavily. An overview of studies on the impact of alcohol advertising published by Oxford University found that 12 of 13 studies showed “an impact of exposure [to alcohol advertisements] on subsequent alcohol use, including initiation of drinking and heavier drinking amongst existing drinkers.”

This is a good thing for the alcohol companies’ shareholders—and for the government. In 2006 alone, state and local governments made roughly $18 billionoff alcohol taxes. As for the industry, it’s raking in profits and using them to make sure it stays on top: in 2008, Anheuser-Busch (the company that makes Budweiser) took in $39.7 billion in revenue, and put that money to work,contributing over $1.5 million to political campaigns through Anheuser-Busch PAC. And in 2010, the  California Beer and Beverage Distributors group financed the campaign against a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, proving the industry has a financial incentive to keep illegal drug use down.

When you don’t drink, you start to notice how big of a problem alcohol is for so many people, despite the industry’s efforts to conceal this fact. After spending a couple New Year’s Eve parties sober, you start to ask yourself why anyone would want to do this. Somehow, when you’re sober, getting into a fistfight with your best friend and then puking in a bathtub just doesn’t look like that much fun.

And these aren’t even the worst effects of alcohol. Alcohol use is positively correlated with domestic violence, and alcohol is a factor in over half of all rapes. Alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. And as AlterNet reported this week, the number of liquor stores in an area is one of the strongest predictors of the rate of violent crime in the area.

Still, there’s absolutely no social stigma related to alcohol consumption. It’s actually the opposite, as I’ve learned since I quit drinking. Not only do people find it strange that I don’t drink, some people refuse to believe it. I’ve had more than one argument that began with the other person insisting “No, I saw you drinking last week.”

Some people actually don’t understand what it means not to drink. I’ve heard everything from “But red wine isn’t really alcohol, right?” to “Yeah, I know you don’t drink, but you can just have one beer.”

The problem is that I can’t. I quit drinking when I was 21 years old, after an escalating series of alcohol-induced problems over several years, culminating in a bout of alcohol hallucinosis that ended with me being sedated in a jail cell after a fight with the guards. I finally realized that, for me, alcohol is an all-or-nothing proposition and that I would never be able to drink in moderation.

This is obviously not a story I want to share with every stranger 10 seconds after meeting them. But drinking is so ingrained in our culture that my decision not to drink almost always requires some kind of explanation. And abstinence from drinking is so unusual that it’s often impossible to wave the question away. People want details of why, exactly, you don’t drink.

This is a phenomenon that doesn’t occur with any other substance. People aren’t ever curious as to why someone doesn’t smoke cigarettes or why they don’t like coffee. Even vegans are subject to fewer questions than teetotalers.

Just how socially unacceptable not drinking is was driven home for me a couple weeks ago during a party at a friend’s house. I was sitting with a friend, a guy I’ve known a couple months, when, not realizing that I don’t drink, he started talking about his opinion of people who don’t drink. “My grandfather told me never to trust anyone that doesn’t drink,” he said. “And it’s true! He was right!”

Actually, it’s drinking that makes people less trustworthy. Along with other parts of the brain, alcohol affects the frontal lobe and the amygdala, causing a lack of inhibitions and making you more prone to out-of-control behavior. Throughout my adult life, I’ve seen countless examples of alcohol causing horrible behavior, from violence to accidental injury to a shirking of responsibilities due to hangovers.

Another important thing to remember is that marijuana, still illegal under federal law, does not carry these same risks and is overall much safer than alcohol. Marijuana is much less addictive than alcohol and much less harmful, too. In the entire history of marijuana use, there has not been one recorded instance of death from marijuana overdose. Several studies have shown that marijuana useactually reduces aggressive behavior leading to violent crime.

Personally, I’ve never had any problems from smoking weed. When I smoke it, I don’t feel the need to smoke more until I pass out and It’s never made me unreasonably angry or caused me to do dangerous things.

But if I don’t feel like smoking, I never have to explain that choice (at least since high school, when a refusal to smoke automatically made you a cop). Alcohol has a special status in our culture as a social drug—more than a drug, it’s regarded as an activity. Going out to drink is a full-fledged pastime, one that’s often considered as harmless as an afternoon at the movies.

And for not partaking in this social activity (even though I still go to the same bars and parties as everyone else) I’m automatically branded as abnormal until and unless I can give a satisfactory explanation for declining to drink. When you think about it, this is really the reverse of the normal order. With any other drug as destructive as alcohol, the stigma comes from using it, not from abstinence.

I have no illusions that alcohol is suddenly going to disappear as a central force in the social life of Western cultures. But it’s time we paid a little more attention to our attitudes about alcohol and start to classify it as a drug rather than innocent entertainment.

About the Author

Andrew Beale is an independent journalist from New Mexico. He reports on politics, social-justice issues and global conflicts.

This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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  • The studies that claim alcohol makes you live longer are complete nonsense.

    The most common reason for people to abstain for alcohol at an older age is because their health can’t handle it and their doctor has demanded they stop drinking. OF COURSE THEY WILL DIE MORE FREQUENTLY! The drinkers at that age are those who have fine health and therefore aren’t commanded to stop drinking.

    There needs to be a study of people who have abstained their whole life from alcohol vs people who haven’t to really see the effects.

    We know for a fact that alcohol is bad for brain and kidney health, so it makes no sense for it to somehow save people from death.

  • Jana

    I like the line, “aw just one sip.” Would you do this with any other type of drink? Here, have a sip of my coffee!

  • peter

    I don’t care what anybody says the truth why people drink wine or beer is to get a hit fact! drink grape juice instead!
    anybody who consumes alcohol has a problem simple truth and if you want to argue this point than tell me why you would consume anything that alters your mind and mood? it’s because you feel better when it happens.

  • Liam Dolan

    Top kudos to who wrote this article! One of the best things I’ve ever read!

  • Chris

    My guess is that one day in the not to distant future, we’ll find that feeling stupid is the body’s way of saying we are doing genetic/epigenetic damage to ourselves, and unborn children.
    What’s really sad, is that after millennia of “civilization” we still haven’t found a way to preferentially socialize while simply being ourselves together.

  • Danish Aziz

    Very well written.I agree with u.
    Another thing people dont thing is that, Alcohol business generate huge profits and those owners will not like people to think

  • Sherry Sacred Warrior

    I am happy to not consume that evil poison! My body is a haven for this conscious so LOVE is the best decision instead of drinking. Peace

    • Gabe

      Yes, please pour me a large glass of Love! : )

  • torus

    Alcohol activates the brilliant baby mind. Sure, it’s why Foster Brookes could make a career of pretending (?) to be pissed all the time. The slurred baby speech was somehow endearing. Baby’s can be impossible to reason with though, just like my father. Alcohol is for assholes – and that’s what it turned my father into.

  • Hilary

    Generations after generations of young working class British society- since the seventies I’d say-has been the subject of a sick experiment to glorify loutishness (hence peer group popularity) through mainstream television right-up to the present day with ‘Sky Sport’and the proliferation of drink-related logos (Carling) on football-team shirts and the sponsoring of football leagues. If you don’t like this you’re a square or odd apparently.

    The quaint English pub which was once deemed as a sign of the health and vitality of a community up and down the country has had its very innards ripped-out and re-fashioned to suit the perverse marketing desires of contemporary breweries pushing the repulsive ‘Sky-Sport’ brand to attract of course…a repulsive clientele. Today you can rarely pass a public house without being subjected to this type of tackyness, especially in urban areas. What does a public house which promotes this sort of kitsch consider as suitable alcohol beverage?

    I’ll tell you. It doesn’t care, because the Sky Sport sheeple will drink anything in a pint glass which has bubbles, is yellow and has the desired effect as long as they can get a mobile phone signal and their team is winning on the big screen. How’s that for the health of a society?

  • Hilary

    When people say they’ve stopped drinking, they could mean they have decided not to touch a drop of it since their decision or in my case go from being a weekend drinker ten yrs ago (approx 6 pints per weekend of nasty British chemicaled lager, in my case) to just one large glass of wine per weekend(2 units)…which i feel is far more healthy and enjoyable. Red wine has some health benefits and I know I enjoy it as and when I feel like it.
    It’s a personal choice I know, and I respect anyone, and the author of this article for his alcohol-free lifestyle, but I will personally continue to enjoy a quality glass of red.

    • peter

      I would bet any money you have more than one glass a week! what do you do with the rest of the bottle if you just pour one glass a week? save it for next week? I dont believe you. if you think red wines healthy have you tried grape juice?

  • Koen

    Prohibition of any drug is not a solution to the problem.
    In stead of spending billions on drugs wars, governments should legalise all drugs and:

    – provide excellent mass education about drugs (and food) related health problems
    – make responsible the legal drugs/food companies for all drugs/food related problems, via higher taxation on drugs products.
    – stimulate healthy behaviour (much lower health insurance costs for abstainers)

    I regret we have evil governments that let healthy people pay for ineffective policies and ineffective laws, and dumb us down.

  • Jam

    Alcohol consumption is repulsive. I have avoided it my entire 63 years. My WWII vet dad took his own life when I was 6, by use of alcohol. I prefer cannabis, yet I am still waiting for legalization to gain the freedom to use this natural and beneficial substance.

    • jbw

      “Waiting for legalization”??! Are you a sheeeep, or what?!! LOFL!!! FUCK the government, just light up….”Waiting…” Wotta sucker…

    • Skylar

      My father died of alcoholism as well. Growing up in an alcoholic home was nightmare.

  • Chacha

    What a great and true article. I don’t drink (I am 28) and the same stuff happens to me when I find myself around people who do drink. People don’t want to believe me! I can see how destructive alcohol is. My 22 year old neighbor drinks pretty much all the time: either wine with dinner or at a party on the weekend. I have basically never spoke with her when she was 100% sober. She intoxicated pretty much every day after 8pm (dinner time). Now, if that’s considered ACCEPTABLE then there’s something wrong this the society.

  • Yep, been there, done that. The only time I ever drink alcohol is if it’s offered at Communion at a church I’m visiting, but otherwise, no. I know I have an addictive personality and the men in my family have a history of alcoholism, so I figure I’m just better off not even touching it. Generally I get “Can’t handle it?” or “On the wagon?” It blows some people’s minds to think I never really got in the habit to begin with.

  • Lee

    and the biggest lobbyists against Pot? Alcohol and Tobacco!
    Our Government has just knocked one Penny off a pint of Beer, i’ll be celebrating all the way to the Bank, they’re not all bad!

  • Christopher

    It’s the devil’s brew. Enough said.

  • Jim Yost

    This reminds me of two old sayings, the first: “Antichrist is more righteous than Christ.” This was spoken nearly thirty years ago by an old Christian prophet in reference to the spirit of Antichrist who has been the demise of Christianity since A.D. 1 (as he masquerades as the Holy Spirit and has control over nearly all the so-called ‘churches’ in America). The second: “Truth comes out in wine.” Which was spoken by Pliny the Elder sometime around 70 A.D.

    These statements add up to be interesting seeing as how Jesus made the statement “I am the truth..” (John 14:6) and his first miracle was turning 120 gallons of water into fine wine (John 2:10).

    The reason most abstainers don’t drink is because they don’t trust what they’ll say and/or do when they drink, which means they don’t trust themselves. Drinking loosens the tongue and the truth spills out and most people who don’t drink don’t want anyone to know that information. In fact most of them don’t want to know it themselves and so they won’t risk drinking because they’re liable to find out. They become hypocrites in other words (who care more about what other people think about them than they care about the truth). Then they become experts at inventing reasons and excuses for why they don’t drink.

    Jesus and his friends drank wine. Jesus also had a lot of negative things to say about people who are hypocrites.

    • Rachel

      That’s not why I don’t drink and I know that’s not true for all non-drinkers. Also, CRACK makes people tell the truth too. And that’s not why I don’t smoke crack either.

  • Dougie

    Great article with many points that could be expanded on. Just one thing, check out the US Justice Dept Survey 2011 I think, in that they suggest that 75%of all alcohol is bought and consumed by about 25% of all drinkers, and that the Big Alcohol companies know this and have done since the late 60’s, definitely normalising!

  • 87 years old

    Alcohol is a huge industry. Thus it is propagated through the media. Thus the general public reinforces it into their culture. You also have disinformation about things like prohibition which are commonly repeated by the general public. You also have disinformation regarding health benefits, a side-effect-free moderate use level etc…

    As far as the idea of being socially ostracized for being a non-drinker(which was supposedly the topic of this blog), I have less empathy for you, although it is a worthy topic starter.

  • Willow

    Phasing out social drinking was a natural process for me as I took a more serious approach to my overall health. Once aware also of the agenda by the PTB to destroy the youngsters at their absolute peak in awareness, wits, potential, etc., I was even happier to let it go and engage in discussions with the youth in my life. They will mirror positive examples about responsible drinking. A glass or wine, cocktail sure, but one should always remain in control of oneself and aware of their surroundings – No need to covet alcohol/drugs. The PTB have done a successful job at changing society’s views and expectations of what our youth are: partyers, irresponsible, over-sexed, infantile. Yet, a look back in history and young adults were the very leaders of industry; finance, science, medicine, arts, etc. A high school exam from the 1950’s is quite an eye opener! The Wings of the Youth have been clipped before they even begin to fly. And we have all been manipulated to believe they are ‘supposed’ to be on permanent spring break. Their incredible awareness, intellect, unlimited potential has been robbed from them because the Powers That Be FEAR them the most.

  • I choose not to drink alchohol, my wife doesnt drink and we do not attempt company functions because they are binges. We are outcasts due to this. We personally feel that the world would be better off if prohibition came back and it would certainly be better off today if it had never been relaxed.

    • Rachel

      Better if prohibition came back?? So you don’t like something and that means nobody gets it? Because it’s not healthy then it should be illegal and what? People should go to jail for drinking rotten fruit juice?! Ohh, your an OUTCAST. So lets throw people in jail so YOU can have a better chance at being cool. Better yet, let’s outlaw your coffee or your chocolate or your car or your favorite brand of pants…Lets fill the jails!!

      I no longer drink but I don’t believe in controlling other people.

      • jbw

        Exaaaactly, but these ‘Friends of Bloomberg’ and other Nanny Staters want to CONTROL….

  • Michelle

    I don’t drink on the most part. I think the last drink I had was in 2011 when I was visiting a friend in HI. I’ve never had a drinking problem, but am health conscious and choose not to drink. I have had the same issues, “You can have one drink, come on, just one.” Or, why don’t I drink… like something is wrong with me. Being tired of explaining myself, I now just say, “I’m an alcoholic.” And the response is always, “Oh that’s cool… good for you, etc.” Sorry for using that for all you true alcoholics out there but this is the only thing that actually works to shut people up.

  • Check out Doug Kaufman web site knowthecause.com he tells the truth about alcohol and how all sickness is fungus related.

  • Drinking is part of the bread and circuses design to socially program the masses for sheepdom. Alcohol dries out our cells, it’s alcohol.
    Many people are cutting out or cutting back on self destructive behavior. That’s not only good for them/you but good for all of us.

  • TTW

    Excellent article Andrew! I stopped drinking that poison 26 years ago. Pot was a great help in getting the alcohol monkey off of my back. Same with cigarettes. I realized as a young man that ANY government that won’t let you have marijuana, but lets you have ALL the alcohol and cigarettes you want is NOT looking out for your best interest. The US government is a crime organization, and alcohol is one of their favorite tools to keep people down and stupid. NO OTHER DRUG creates the OBSCENE behavior commonly associated with alcohol. It is a PLAGUE of the western world, and turns good people into repulsive vermin. Alcohol is for MORONS.

    • PMC

      Alcohol is for morons? Tell that to the countless people that drink responsibly. Not everyone is an alcoholic.

      • Ghana Serapis

        Yet, everyone is irresponsible a multitude of times in their doings and goings in life. Why add fuel to an out of control fire? I am not seeking abolishment of spirits. I would ask why more attention is not applied about its dangers in educational settings where youth are programmed? How much drunk and party rape would disappear? How many unwanted pregnancies would shrink the mental illness associated within the realm of women I know who have had them or an abortion and the mental illness that accompanies it? Can we not look for a better and brighter humanity by teaching the truth to youth or would the apple cart topple over and expose the profit behind it?

        • jbw

          “Doings ang goings”?? You STILL managed to ignore/miss PMC’s point, Master Po….

    • Anonymous

      Excellent comment!
      I too stopped drinking and smoking when I was not yet 30 years old.
      Best damnable decisions I ever made.
      I have never seen anything so disgusting as the behavior of drunk people. And now that I do not smoke I can tell you that it is the most bile and disgusting thing imaginable. Would you ever expect someone to walk up to a burning trash bin and inhale deeply???????? How about a burning toxic waste dump?????
      Yet, as a smoker I thought nothing of sucking that poisonous crap into my lungs. WHAT WAS I THINKING?
      You are absolutely correct about our govt. being corrupt. They are all liars from hell.

      • rww

        just happend to post at 4:20 i find ironic and smoking pot least know what in it cant say as much for cigs

    • Anonymous

      Alcohol,tobacco,drugs,pot,an addict is an addict is an addict.
      There is no such thing as a ‘heavy drinker’. Either you are an alcoholic,or you are not.
      What,pray tell is the difference between an alcoholic and a so called heavy drinker? one drink per day.

  • dimitri

    Say it, man, LOUDER! Alcohol consumption may well turn out to be one of the hidden causes of the decline and fall of western civilization.

    • Rachel

      I agree.

      • Jerry

        So True!

    • Kyle


    • abinico warez

      Total teetotaler nonsense. Red wine is actually good for you – as for hidden causes, look into the nuclear industry.

    • rww

      without we wouldnt have a new world gluttony is too blame the toxic level for alcohol should be lowered or made to be known it can vary as much as .3 in people where .3 might be a fine drunk limit for some .7 is death and for sure .4 is comatose if not very amblutory would anyone abuse another drug to that piont like having 10 cups of coffee in 4 hours say or pack smokes in 2 or 1/8th of weed an interesting look at the world look at youtube what 20$ will buy you in drugs around the wrold

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