BROOKE GLADSTONE This week, a look at humanity's ancient, often angst ridden relationship to alcohol from Gilgamesh to the Greeks and what the pandemic revealed about the American problem with the drink.
HOUSE DRINKER Instead of going out to the bars until like 2:00 in the morning, I'll just drink every night at my house.
NEWS REPORT You'll never drink alone again, said the headlines in August, when Anheuser-Busch launched Dog Brew. [END CLIP]
IAIN GATELY Demosthenes is one of the most famous orators of ancient Athens. And yet, because he was a water drinker, people always rather doubted him.
BLOCK On the morning of the accident,
WHIP I was drunk. I'm drunk right now...because I'm an alcoholic. [END CLIP]
ROBERT TAYLOR Advertisements on television of young, healthy, beautiful people having a wonderful time-consuming alcohol. In France, you wouldn't see that.
DAVID NUTT Crack, crystal heroin were the most dangerous drugs to the users, but alcohol, because of its prevalence of use, was the most damaging drug to society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. And let's begin this hour. Our deep dive into booze and booziness with one lingering aftermath of the pandemic, which is that as bars and restaurants closed down, America got its drunk on.
NEWS REPORT Coming up, we're going to talk about the booze boom.
NEWS REPORT Americans are drinking about 14 percent more alcohol this year than they did in 2019, and women are drinking about 17 percent more, doctors calling it alarming.
NEWS REPORT Across the country, there has been a 30 to 50 percent increase in hospitalizations due to alcohol associated liver disease.
HOUSE DRINKER Instead of going out to the bars until like 2:00 in the morning, I'll just drink every night at my house. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the era of social distancing, many of us tumbled into a stay at home bender, but the harm lies not just in drinking more, but in drinking alone. In fact, we were so desperate for drinking buddies, when Anheuser-Busch launched its own solution in 2020, it became an instant hit: beer for dogs.
NEWS REPORT You'll never drink alone again, said the headlines in August when Anheuser-Busch launched Dog Brew.
NEWS REPORT You can only buy a pack of four online, and get this, there's already a wait list.
NEWS REPORT I think it's pretty cool that you can share one with your best friend. You can have yours and they can have theirs. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE According to Kate Julian, senior editor at The Atlantic, it's all part of a larger, very American history of the spree, the frolic, the solitary binge... and a love-hate relationship with booze that extends almost to the nation's founding. While humans have been drinking since before we were humans, Julian argues that it was Americans who normalized drinking alone in difficult times like this one...
KATE JULIAN We can say almost definitionally that the drinking that was happening was less likely to be social. The places where people would have been drinking with other people, bars, restaurants, parties, other people's houses mostly weren't on offer. We also know insofar as people were drinking at home, they were tending to do it in a self-medicating way. One survey in February found that 25 percent of Americans said they were drinking more to deal with the stress of the past year, which is a pretty remarkable figure when you consider that about a third of Americans don't drink at all. One of the things that's perplexing about what's happened since the turn of the century is that there were a lot of reasons to think that drinking would decline or flatten out. Righ? We had an increasing awareness of alcohol's health harms. Perhaps cannabis was going to substitute for alcohol, that was one of the big arguments for marijuana liberalization. And in fact, what we've seen is sort of the opposite. People are smoking more and they're also drinking more. And some of it may be just that we feel more driven to drink because of various stressors of modern life. Heavy drinking was actually up substantially about 10 percent the year after 9/11. We know, too, that in areas that have had other real traumas, collective traumas, for example, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, that alcohol consumption tended to increase.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If drinking is so dangerous, why did we evolve to do it? I mean, humans have been drinking forever, right?
KATE JULIAN There are so many reasons why alcohol would seem to be a really maladaptive thing, right? That makes us do stupid things. It makes us get in accidents, it makes us fight with each other. Sometimes we drink ourselves to death. Why wouldn't natural selection have corrected this problem? There is a school of thought among some anthropologists that drinking may have far from being maladaptive, it's actually been really helpful to early humans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You quote the philosophy professor Edward Slingerland's new book Drunk, where he says, we get drunk because we're a weird species, the awkward losers of the animal world, and we need all the help we can get.
KATE JULIAN He discovered that there is this growing school of thought led by a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, that actually alcohol might have really been a useful glue to early human civilizations. For all the time we've spent thinking that bread was the thing that led people to settle down, making alcohol may have been part of it, and it makes a certain amount of sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In other words, maybe not making grain for bread with beer as a side product, but beer as the motivator for growing grain?
KATE JULIAN Yeah, I mean, that's far from the conventional wisdom at this point, but it's been taken increasingly seriously as a possibility. That if not before the bread, then maybe at the same time of bread whereas previously it was assumed that beer was sort of this happy accident. Oh, we're growing grains, and look, if you leave some in a bowl, what happens?
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if alcohol helped civilizations flourish socially, how did solitary drinking become so popular in America?
KATE JULIAN It's important to note that solitary drinking turns out to have been really, really rare in almost every society. Until the modern age, it was taboo. In America, many people were living in very far flung fashion. This is especially true in the early 19th century as westward expansion really led to more people living in isolation than have ever before. This is also the time when the American rate of alcohol consumption peaks. In 1830, it was about three times what it is today. People drank cider as water for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We consumed as a nation vast amounts of bourbon whiskey, which was extremely cheap due to grain surpluses. Part of this is really being a matter of self medication in that time. It was an extraordinarily stressful environment to live in. We had tremendous population growth. Cities were, in some cases doubling their population every fifteen years. There was the industrial revolution getting started. So there was this huge and very, to modern ears, familiar sounding mismatch between jobs and skills. So for all of these reasons, it's thought that this was kind of a moment of great American anxiety and that that was the cause of this habit of drinking, not for fun, but drinking with the goal of oblivion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But I'm just wondering, this hot and cold relationship with alcohol led ultimately to Prohibition. What brought us there?
KATE JULIAN There was widespread concern in the 19th century about the effects of distilled liquor, which was still a relatively new innovation, and which was causing drinking problems the world over. So you see these movements and a whole bunch of countries where people are advocating for things like regulation of liquor trade, taxation of liquor cellars, calls for personal education in moderation. The US wasn't unique in having all of that. What was unique was the form that Prohibition ended up taking, which was by far the most sweeping. We banned the sale of alcohol, period, but of course, that didn't really work the way people hoped that it would.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It did decrease drinking, right?
KATE JULIAN It definitely decreased American drinking and in a lasting way. A couple of years after repeal in 1935 Americans were still drinking half what they had early in the century. Rates of cirrhosis were way down and they would stay down for decades. That being said, the kind of drinking that continued tended to be a bit different. For one thing, liquor became more predominant during this period. If you're a bootlegger, are you going to be carrying around barrels of beer or wine, or are you going to be carrying something that packs a little bit more punch? It also had the effect of driving drinking into the home by shutting down saloons, makes it more of a domestic enterprise. That combined with the rise of the speakeasy, which was a very new, anything goes environment, made it more possible and more socially acceptable for women to drink. In fact, this is one reason that some people became opponents of Prohibition. They were really unhappy with the fact that it had led to this change where women were drinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So tell me what happened in the time we can remember.
KATE JULIAN So in the decades after prohibition, alcohol consumption just ticked steadily up in the 1970s, it crescendos, it peaks around 1980, and this leads to collective revulsion. People surveyed the beer cans littering the front lawn and say, "whoa, this has gone too far." And so you see in the 1980s what's been described actually as an age of neo-temperance. This is when concern about fetal alcohol syndrome becomes widespread. This is when we finally get serious about drunk driving and warning labels get added to alcohol bottles. And all of this has an effect. We do start to drink less. The number of bars in the country starts to decrease. This continues through the 80s and 90s. In his book Bowling Alone in 2000, Robert Putnam actually notes that as one of the signs of America's civic fraying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And they're drinking less overall, but you're saying there's a cost in social ties?
KATE JULIAN Exactly. When alcohol use starts to pick up around the turn of the century, it's not like the number of bars starts to increase again. It continues to decrease. This increase in drinking since 2000 happens even during a period of time when we know that Americans are doing a lot less in person socializing. We're visiting other people's homes less. We're seeing our friends less frequently. And yet even so, the amount that we're drinking continues to increase.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your piece, you note that the increase in drinking among women is higher than that of men.
KATE JULIAN Men do still drink more than women, and that's important to know and they do still suffer more of the harms. But people who watch this stuff closely are really concerned that women are trying their best to catch up. Marketing is undoubtedly part of this, but mental health trends would appear to be, too. We know that women are more likely to use alcohol as a way of dealing with depression and anxiety, and we also know that rates of depression and anxiety have been rising among women. There has been joking, memes, about mom-wine culture. You know, wine o'clock and coffee mugs that say "this might be wine." And a lot of it looks fun and social, and I'm a wine drinker myself, I’m also a mom. But in fact, a lot of this drinking isn't really social, right? Parents don't have a lot of time to be hanging out with friends. They are pouring a glass of wine at the end of the night. And more often than not, it's kind of a way of coping. It's a way of demarcating work time from personal time at a moment when they all seem sort of horribly blurred together. This is something that a lot of people noticed during the pandemic work in home, which have been getting more muddied for quite some time now, were irretrievably so. At the end of the day, you didn't have your commute to come home. You didn't have some other way of resetting, of saying, I'm going to have a little bit of me time or a little bit of time to unwind. And alcohol ended up fulfilling that function, I think, for a lot of us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so as the lockdowns end, the world begins to open up again, do you think alcohol could be a positive way to address our pandemic malaise if we do it together?
KATE JULIAN You know, I do. And obviously I hesitate to say this because I don't want it to seem that it's an endorsement of alcohol across the board, right? There are lots of people who prefer not to drink. But I do think that for many of us, this is a moment when we are more tentative, more socially anxious, more socially awkward, and probably we could benefit right now from something that provides some social lubrication from something that helps us to relax. Speaking for myself, I've made the decision to try to limit the temptation that I've indulged over the past year, year and a half, of having a glass of wine by myself at night. And just to save that for when I'm with friends. And the thing that I've noticed is that it's a lot more fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All this makes me think of toasts. L'chaim. To life. I reported from Russia for a while and one that was often presented with a little bit of a smirk was "za mezhdunarodnuyu druzhbu", which means to international friendship.
KATE JULIAN [LAUGHS] It is fascinating, really, how widespread toasting traditions are, right? You see them across cultures, across time periods, this idea that alcohol is a specific tool that helps facilitate big festivities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kate, thanks so much.
KATE JULIAN Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kate Julian is a senior editor at The Atlantic. Her recent article is called America Has a Drinking Problem. Coming up, is red wine killing us or saving us? That depends on the news cycle. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Continuing this hour about ethanol, as in: spirits, sauce, swill, grog, vino, blanc, suds, bubbles, booze, a wee dram, the devil's brew, we condemn it.
[ELLA FITZGERALD's "When I Get Low, I Get High" BEGINS]
PROBLEM DRINKERS They want your sweet, innocent girls to take the booze so they can be enticed into honky tonks by slick-haired buzzards who prey on the flower of American womanhood. Alcohol, must go! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Revel in it.
W.C. FIELDS Throughout the Middle Ages, drunkenness was so common it was unnoticed. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We fear it.
NEWS REPORT It goes by the nickname’s blackout in a can and liquid cocaine.
NEWS REPORT It’s the equivalent of four beers, a Red Bull and a shot of espresso.
NEWS REPORT You can get very drunk, very fast, very cheaply, Maggie.
MAGGIE Very scary. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You need it.
[ELLA FITZGERALD SINGING "When I Get Low, I Get High" ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alcohol has been humanity's companion through good times and ill, even before we were human. Primates are attracted to ethanol. In fact, the drunken monkey hypothesis proposed by Dr. Robert Dudley at Berkeley suggests that the attraction may once have been an evolutionary advantage. Ethanol leads the nose to overripe fruit rich in calories, as is ethanol itself. So in a short life of scarcity, it's actually nutritious. But in a long life of abundance, potentially ruinous. We still argue about it. Sometimes the same arguments the ancients, maybe even the monkeys had. It's that duality that attracted Iain Gately, the author of Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol.
IAIN GATELY When I looked at the subject, what struck me most was this sort of Jekyll and Hyde aspects of alcohol, and in fact the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, had exactly those two aspects to his character. He could be loving, and he was the patron of the theater and of many of the arts. Yet at the same time, he could be quite unpredictable, too, in his rage and violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The reference to alcohol in Gilgamesh, possibly the oldest literary work in existence, is when Gilgamesh, the king of a Mesopotamian city, wanted to team up with a wild man named Enkidu. They civilized Enkidu by giving him beer.
STORYTELLER His heart grew light, his face glowed and he sang out with joy. He washed. He rubbed sweet oil into his skin and became fully human. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE I notice, through your book, that beer is the working man's drink, and wine, that of the elite or the effete. And this goes back to the ancient Egyptians, where probably the pyramids were built by seriously drunk people.
IAIN GATELY Yes, they had a ration of one and a third gallons of beer per day, and this might have been as strong as five percent. Now, you know, if I was to drink that much beer in the hot sun while seeing hard labor, I can't see how it wouldn't get me drunk. And beer, yes, it is usually the working man or woman drink, and wine. I mean, in the case of the Egyptians, they didn't really grow their own, so it was an imported luxury and it was a tool for discrimination as much as anything else, you know. If you were the pharaoh, then you would have the best wine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some things never change. I bet the wine experts of the day couldn't tell the expense of wine from the cheap wine in a blind test, but never mind that.
IAIN GATELY Well one wonders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Greeks also favored wine, poets and playwrights, politicians. You quote the epic poet Panyassis who wrote "wine is like fire and aid and sweet relief wards off all ills and comforts every grief. Wine can of every feast, the joys enhance, and kindle soft desire. It leads the dance."
IAIN GATELY They really did see it as not simply a social lubricant, but also as inspiration. They believe that when people are engaging in oratory that they really had to have a drink first, and that people who didn't drink were therefore suspect because they weren't revealing their true feelings. I mean, he was, Demosthenes, one of the most famous orators of ancient Athens, and yet because he was a water drinker, people always rather doubted him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Christians actually started with a fairly liberal attitude towards alcohol, at least in the earliest holy books.
IAIN GATELY And it's interesting, I think that in both the Old and New Testament, there's very little in the way of a sort of concrete description of what heaven will be like. But in both there will be wine there. Wine and alcohol was omnipresent both in Judaism and Christianity. Jesus, obviously, one of his first miracles is to convert water into wine, and having declared at the Last Supper that this is my body, this is my blood. The act of transubstantiation being an important part of Christian worship thereafter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So Aristotle had tried to distill wine into a pure spirit way back in the fourth century B.C., but he couldn't figure out how.
IAIN GATELY It's a more delicate art and I think is commonly realized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And ultimately perfected in a part of the world we've associated with being dogmatically opposed to alcohol: the Muslim world.
IAIN GATELY That's absolutely right. I mean, there's a reasonably explicit ban in the Koran against strong drink. And yet they were also masters of science for the time. I mean, so there's Jabir in the 8th century who's really the father of chemistry. And he sat down to classify substances and work out a little more about the nature of things. Al-Razi, a century later, found a substance which he called "al-kohl".
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhmm.
IAIN GATELY Which is obviously the root of our word, alcohol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Next to the Muslims, probably the strictest drinking culture that you describe was that of the Aztecs. This seems to be the first civilization to impose a drinking age.
IAIN GATELY That's right. As far as we can judge, from the accounts of the conquistadors, they had a minimum drinking age of 50 for both men and women.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And if you violated the drinking laws,
IAIN GATELY you could be stoned to death. There were, as ever, exceptions. So once again, it seems that the elite had rather freer access to alcohol and warriors too were allowed to drink. And they seem to have troughs of pulque outside some of the temples.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Pulque being the fermented sap of the agave plant.
IAIN GATELY That's correct. And the preparation of which was highly ceremonial, like the people responsible for preparing it, had to forswear sex for a few days and isolate themselves from other people. And once it was ready, it had to be drunk very quickly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
IAIN GATELY One of the conquistadores is quoted as saying, you know, there's no smell even a dead dog or a bomb going off won't clear a street quite as quickly as of pulque.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, one thing that was fascinating to me and related to the ceremony is among the exceptions. You talk about the warriors and some of the elites, but also it seems as if your astrological chart marked you as a rabbit you had to drink.
IAIN GATELY Yes, it does appear that some people were literally cursed by the Zodiac. Pulque was protected by the 400 moon rabbit gods of pulque and one sign of the Aztecs known as two rabbits. If you're born under that, you were expected to be, if not prone, then actually just cursed to be a drunk. And people born under that sign were obviously allowed to drink, but they were vilified and they were expected to look, you know, like sort of sad and angry drunks. Sort of staggering around, badly dressed and you know, getting cursed by everyone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you observed that every time spirits were introduced into a society for the first time, it caused destruction until people figured out how to control it.
IAIN GATELY That's right. It instantly had a very adverse effect on their populations. And we see this time and time again, we see it in Germany where they're doing brandy, burnt wine. And, you know, at first they're saying this is a marvelous elixir, it cures everything. Gonorrhea, syphilis, constipation, [LAUGHS] and madness, madness in dogs, barrenness in women. I mean, some of the lists are simply ridiculous. But you also begin to see, you know, people suddenly dying from drink, which people weren't used to. The idea that someone could just simply drink a pint and then drop dead was pretty unusual to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As in, in the 1700s, the London gin craze. You wrote that in 1723 statistics suggested that every man, woman and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per week. The impact was obviously shocking levels of public drunkenness in the capital.
IAIN GATELY That's right. Even cultures, which had really a very long history of drinking, their culture didn't protect them against something which was so much stronger than what they were used to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Reading your book, you get the sense that there are two arguments that have been made century after century against or for drinking alcohol. One centers on the health benefits, or lack thereof. And the other centers on the morality of it, or lack thereof. As you wrote, the prohibitionists in the U.S., the early ones, likened drinking to a moral failing like slavery.
IAIN GATELY Those are the two threads. It's the Jekyll and Hyde. And today, a lot of surveys come out showing that moderate drinking of alcohol is good for you. And yet on the other side of the coin, you've got excessive drinking is without doubt very bad for you. I mean, not just for you, but the people who surround you. Should we not always have a clarity of mind, which is unfuddled by the influence of alcohol, but then you could balance that with a resounding yes, that is actually part of our nature, like eating meat. We are human because we drink alcohol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
IAIN GATELY Well, thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Iain Gately is the author of Drink a Cultural History of Alcohol. So we'll pick up and extend Iain Gately's Jekyll and Hyde idea here by observing that since civilization's dawn, we've viewed the transmogrification of grain or the grape as both Mother Nature's miracle elixir and deadly decoction. Our source of creative inspiration and moral impairment, our "hiva." Today, this mercurial relationship often plays out on the news where we learn that red wine will kill us.
NEWS REPORT Wine even a little bit of alcohol can actually increase the risk of breast cancer. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or save us.
NEWS REPORT Ladies drink your red wine. It could prevent breast cancer. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or kill us.
NEWS REPORT I probably told you hundreds of times that red wine is good for your heart, but recent news is raising questions. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or save us.
NEWS REPORT It'll help you with good cholesterol. It lowers blood pressure, lowers stress. And overall just, it has many, many health benefits. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or maybe not?
NEWS REPORT Now, it might be good to relax at the end of the day, but it is not good for lowering your blood pressure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Screw it.
NEWS REPORT New study suggests that red wine is exercise in a bottle. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That the fruit of the vine, fermented, could actually be medicinal is a tempting yet potentially dangerous conclusion. Robert Taylor, assistant managing editor at Wine Spectator, tracked that notion back to its birthplace, a 60 Minutes special from 1991.
ROBERT TAYLOR Well, the 60 Minute piece couldn't have come out at a more perfect time for the wine industry, really. In the 80s, America was obsessed with fitness. I think every house probably had a Jane Fonda VHS tape.
JANE FONDA Five, Six, Seven, and Eight again now... [END CLIP]
ROBERT TAYLOR ESPN's daytime bread and butter was aerobics shows and weightlifting shows. The 80s were a tough time for wine, especially red wine. Most people drank white wine. A lot of Pinot Grigio,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just 'cause it's easy to drink.
ROBERT TAYLOR Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's not so complex or chewy.
ROBERT TAYLOR Goes down easy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you also had the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving at the time who, you know, were very effective in changing the discussion over alcohol and the safety of children and anyone on the road.
ROBERT TAYLOR Absolutely. The Reagan era war on drugs and alcohol had a very significant impact on the culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So November 1991, this piece airs on 60 Minutes.
MORLEY SAFER [BOTTLES CLINK] There has been for years the belief by doctors in many countries that alcohol, in particular red wine, reduces the risk of heart disease. Now it's been all but confirmed. [END CLIP]
ROBERT TAYLOR It was viewed by nearly 22 million households. It was really one of 60 Minutes' most popular segments at the time. They revisited it frequently. Morley Safer certainly was enthusiastic about it. He loved red wine. The impact on wine sales in America was immediate. In 1992, red wine sales rose 39 percent in the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
ROBERT TAYLOR And they maintained that popularity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To this day?
ROBERT TAYLOR To this day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, some of the assertions in the piece are pretty wild. Like this one.
DR SERGE RENEAUX A moderate intake of alcohol prevent heart disease by 50 percent. I mean, this is –.
MORLEY SAFER 50 percent?
DR SERGE RENEAUX 50 percent. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Who is this guy making these assertions?
ROBERT TAYLOR Well, Serge Reneaux was really a maverick at the time. He was a French-Canadian medical researcher and scientist who moved from Bordeaux to Canada at age 20 when he was struck by the incidence of coronary heart disease in North America versus that in France, where people ate so much more fat. You know, the stereotype of the French just eating cheese and butter and foie gras all day long and drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. And yet they had a significantly lower incidence of coronary heart disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And he came up with the idea of, quote, the French paradox.
ROBERT TAYLOR Well, he didn't coin the term, but he is considered the father of the French paradox. And he was the first doctor to examine this relationship and postulate that red wine was the key. And his findings led to a groundswell of scientific research which continues to this day. Decreased the impacts of aging, better heart health. There's so many benefits that have been associated with moderate wine consumption since that time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the mid 90s, your magazine put a doctor on the cover with the headline Toasting a Long Life.
ROBERT TAYLOR We did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So did it seem like the relationship with alcohol in health at that point was settled?
ROBERT TAYLOR Settled? I would say that it was beginning to become a reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We have a wonderful clip from a tribute to Morley Safer after he died given by the Wine Enthusiast.
WINE ENTHUSIAST After that story ran, sales of red wine exploded by more than 40 percent jump starting the sale of wine to decades to come. So let's raise a glass in memory of the TV journalist Morley Safer. Yay, he unraveled the French paradox. May you rest in peace. And thank you.
ROBERT TAYLOR Morley did a lot for the wine community. He followed up on that 1991 report in 2008 with a report on resveratrol, which really seems to be the most promising of the polyphenols found in wine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhmm. The original 60 Minutes piece portrays France as the ideal place where the cultural relationship with wine leads to good health. And I'm wondering, do the French media talk about alcohol in the same way?
ROBERT TAYLOR Well, the French media can't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They can't. What do you mean?
ROBERT TAYLOR Well, the great irony of what was happening here in the United States in 1991 is that in France, while coronary heart disease rates were low, alcohol related deaths were quite high. Far higher than here in the US, then and now. That's including cirrhosis, liver failure, as well as drunk driving fatalities. In fact, even today in France, there are estimated to be approximately 50,000 alcohol related deaths a year. And that's in a country of 67 million. Here in the US, that number is 88,000 alcohol related deaths, and that's in a country of 323 million. So the instance in France is 1 per about 1300, whereas here in the US it's 1 per about 3600. So in 1991, trying to address these issues in France, they passed what is known as the Evin Law.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 1991?
ROBERT TAYLOR 1991.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The same year that the 60 Minutes piece ran?
ROBERT TAYLOR Absolutely. And what that did was prohibit alcohol advertising on television or in film. And it limited how alcohol could be advertised in print. In 2008, it restricted Internet advertising for alcohol.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One thing I thought was really fascinating is that advertisers were prohibited from correlating alcohol with happiness or alcohol with sex, and there was a picture of a lovely blond woman with a Mona Lisa smile on her face and a glass of red wine next to her. That's all. She isn't dressed sexy. She isn't lounging over the glass or a bottle or anything. And this was controversial.
ROBERT TAYLOR Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which suggests in a kind of screwed up way that a pretty woman can't be separated from sex.
ROBERT TAYLOR And one of them actually included a smile showing teeth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was that an issue?
ROBERT TAYLOR That was, that was among the issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Say you grew up in France under Evin’s Law, and then you show up in the United States. What would strike you about the advertising here?
ROBERT TAYLOR To arrive in the US and see advertisements on television of young, healthy, beautiful people having a wonderful, time consuming alcohol – that's 100 percent foreign. Anyone who saw the Super Bowl with the Yellowtail ad, the Australian wine brand with an animatronic kangaroo named Brew and a model and Yellowtail guy and his bright yellow suit.
YELLOWTAIL GUY Hi.
YELLOWTAIL GUY Ugh, wanna pet my 'roo?
MODEL Sure, I'll pet your roo.
[MUSIC PLAYS UNDER]
ROBERT TAYLOR The kangaroo is deejaying at a party. They're enjoying red wine.
[MUSIC CONTINUES, CROWD CHEERING].
ROBERT TAYLOR You wouldn't see that in France, you couldn't see that in France.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You couldn't see it for beer either.
ROBERT TAYLOR No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You can barely turn around in the U.S. without bumping into a beer ad.
ROBERT TAYLOR No, which also can't happen in France.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote an obituary for Morley Safer when he died in 2016. Nearly 30 years later, do you think the story that he did still influences the way Americans talk about alcohol?
ROBERT TAYLOR A hundred percent. I think to this day, people consider a glass or two of red wine a night to be preventative, especially for those at risk for cardiovascular disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
ROBERT TAYLOR There's evidence now that moderate wine consumption may delay the onset of dementia. The key is moderate. And a lot of the medical community is hesitant to promote wine in this way because they also don't trust us to drink in moderation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's the nanny state at work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE No, I mean, seriously, why should they?
ROBERT TAYLOR Even the cover of Wine Spectator that you mentioned in the mid 90s with the doctor on the cover, looking at it now, I can tell you that the amount of wine in that glass clearly appears to be more than five ounces. That's a bit of an over pour in that glass, and people do have a hard time sticking to the recommended daily dose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you happen to know if Evin’s Law has been effective in reducing alcohol related deaths in France?
ROBERT TAYLOR I know that it's been very effective in reducing alcohol consumption. In fact, wine consumption in particular has fallen by more than 50 percent in France since 1980. The anti-alcohol movement in France existed well before Evin’s Law. However, per capita consumption in France still dwarfs that of the U.S. In 1980, the French were drinking approximately 80 liters of wine per year per person of drinking age, compared with about seven liters in the US. In the US, that number has been steadily rising up to about 11 liters per year compared with France, which is now down to 40 liters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Still substantial.
ROBERT TAYLOR So significant changes in those habits in the U.S. and in France in opposite directions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That is a lot to chew over. I just wish we had a really good Cabernet to go with it.
ROBERT TAYLOR Brooke, that would be day drinking. Not recommended.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
ROBERT TAYLOR It's been a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Robert Taylor is assistant managing editor at Wine Spectator. Coming up, Dr. Nutt's case for solving our alcohol problem once and for all. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So we've spent this hour considering how alcohol has been folded into just about every facet of American life. Church, leisure, creation, celebration, recreation, anguish and remorse, how can we escape its baleful impact even when it's not literally in us, it's still of us and all around us. Our friends across the pond struggle with the same question. In 2020, England and Wales saw a 20-year record high of over 7000 drinking related deaths. In 2018, we spoke with David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, who said he may have found an antidote. He's developed a less addictive, less toxic drink that produces a gentle high. First, he called it "alco-synth," since rebranded as Alcarelle. Nutt's organization, GABA Labs aims to bring its alcohol alternative to the market by 2025. For years, Nutt helped steer English drug policy as a top government adviser, but that relationship was fraught.
DAVID NUTT During my time, we made ketamine illegal. We made GHB illegal. We made crystal meth more illegal. But when we said things like, well, OK, so now there are drugs which should be made less illegal because they're not as harmful as we used to think. Drugs like cannabis, the penalty should be reduced. The government was not remotely interested, and I just carried on arguing that case and they carried on getting angry with me. And eventually they sacked me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that any drug less dangerous than alcohol should be available legally, right?
DAVID NUTT I don't think I said that while I was working for them but I certainly said it subsequently. While I was there, the terms I made to take on the job were that we had to start doing things properly. We had to have some criteria for assessing harm. And over the next 9 years, I developed, actually, two separate scales of harm. The first was a 9 point scale, but then after publishing that, I was approached by experts and they encouraged us to set up what's called the MCDA approach, multi criteria decision analysis approach, and that project ended up telling us that there were 16 harms that drugs can do. 9 harms to the user and 7 harms to society. But as we were doing that, of course, we were applying those criteria to ongoing assessments. And during that time, we revisited ecstasy. It’s not as harmful as crack cocaine is not as harmful as crystal meth. So it shouldn't be a class A drug. It should be class B. And the government said, no, no, no, no, we don't change it because the newspapers won't like it. And then we said cannabis should stay as a class C drug. It's definitely less harmful than Class B drugs. And the government said, no, we don't like that. The newspapers want it to be Class B. And in the end, we just had this continual tension between what politicians want to do and what the science was telling us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So after you were fired, you released a study that asserted alcohol was actually the most dangerous drug in the UK, more dangerous than heroin or cocaine even.
DAVID NUTT Yes. After being sacked and then did the study where we used the 16 parameters of harm and we then applied them to 20 drugs. So that particular study published in The Lancet in 2010 showed that alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK because the harm to other people was vast. Things like traffic accidents, like the cost to the health service, the cost of policing, the lost productivity from hangovers, the child abuse, spousal abuse, etc. Alcohol, because of its pervasive use and its disinhibiting effects, is an enormously damaging drug to society. It's not the most harmful drug to the user, I think crack, crystal, heroin, one of the most dangerous drugs to the users, but alcohol, because of its prevalence of use, was the most harmful drug overall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So tell me about the range of feedback you got from other scientists and from the government.
DAVID NUTT Of the 110,000 medical papers published in the last ten years, the paper itself is in the top point three percent of all citations. So it's massively cited by the scientists. And actually, we replicated it with a separate group of scientists in Europe, and they came up with almost the same ranking. So we're pretty sure it's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why do you think that alcohol and illegal drugs are treated so differently?
DAVID NUTT Well, because the drinks industry watched how the tobacco industry made a half of it by claiming that nicotine wasn’t addictive and then got really steamrollered when it turned out it was lying. So the drinks industry doesn't say alcohol is not addictive. Used responsibly, it says, it's avoided confrontation with scientists. The second thing it’s done, is it lobbies ferociously. It's managed to put huge amounts of money into the pockets of politicians, and it dishes dirt on other drugs like cannabis so that it doesn't have any competition in the marketplace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how would you change the rules about drugs and alcohol to put them more in line with science?
DAVID NUTT I'll start with what I would do based on what we know from other countries’ works. So, for instance, we know that now in your country, some of your states and in the Netherlands and Uruguay, that the regulated cannabis market works. It's safe, it doesn't cause massive social harm, etc. So, I would bring cannabis out of the illegal realm. That's the first thing I'd do. The second thing I would do is I'd actually decriminalize personal possession of all drugs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All drugs?
DAVID NUTT All drugs and let me explain why. Personal possession, right? 90 percent of people who are caught with drugs in their possession for personal use, their lives will be more affected by the criminal sanction than they will be harmed by the drug. And for the 10 percent who are actually addicted to the drug, then they've got an illness, and putting them in prison or giving them a criminal sanction because they're ill, seems particularly inhumane. And we know that decriminalizing possession, which is what the Portuguese have done, has huge economic benefits, because if you treat people who use drugs as ill, rather than as criminals, you save a lot of money. And there's another hidden benefit, which is that if you give someone a criminal record for drug possession, there's very little else they can do in life but deal drugs. So you create an underclass, and underclasses live on crime and drugs. In the 15 years since they decriminalized drug possession in Portugal, deaths from heroin have fallen to one third of what they were before. Because people are in treatment, the number of users has gone down and therefore the number of deaths has gone down. In the same 15 years in Britain, heroin deaths have gone up by a third. We're trying to do what Americans do, which is to criminalize our way out of the problem, and all we do is create more deaths.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A couple of years back, you went on the BBC and proposed creating something totally new! A safe alcohol, alcosynth. Why?
DAVID NUTT Most of my professional career, I have been involved in trying to reduce the harms of alcohol. Back in the late 70s, 80s, I kind of developed an antidote to alcohol. I could sober up rats that were very drunk. But then about 10 years ago, I realized whatever you did, you could never get rid of the intrinsic harms of alcohol because it's metabolized to acetaldehyde, and acetaldehyde is a toxic substance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
DAVID NUTT You know, whatever we do, if I can sober people up, the acetaldehyde, still pickling their liver. If I stop them having hangovers, the acetaldehyde’s still damaging their brain. Having spent 30 years looking at the pharmacology of alcohol, I realized there were substances out there that actually could replicate some of the positive effects of alcohol but be much, much less harmful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what kind of reaction did you get to your announcement?
DAVID NUTT I got some newspapers calling me another nutty professor and other people saying, you know, this is a fantastic vision. The problem is I didn't get any money. Can't get money from governments to do this. There are 4 million premature deaths a year from alcohol. If we switched everyone to alcosynth, we'd save more people dying than eliminating malaria, tuberculosis or meningitis in the world. So it would be a massive health benefit, but it's just too leftfield for governments to invest. So I'm looking for private investors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, the way we respond to alcohol is so subjective. Some of us get happy, some of us get hostile, do you know how people would react to Alcosynth?
DAVID NUTT Well, we've tested on fair numbers of people and most people get relaxed and happy. Yeah, there will always be some individuals who will have idiosyncratic reactions. You can't avoid that, but the good thing is it's a lot safer. You can't overdose on it, it's not going to kill you. I mean, we lose 3 young people a week in Britain from alcohol poisoning. In the States, you must probably lose 30 or 40, so we can put ourselves in a position where we do have a massive, massive reduction in harm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some of your colleagues when you made the announcement, dismissed the idea as just scientifically infeasible.
DAVID NUTT They're wrong. We've tested it. We have a number of substances which are enjoyed as much as a glass or two of wine. You know, you're not going to get completely out of your head on this. The people who want to be completely blasters aren't going to go for this, but people who would want to have a mellow, pleasant, sociable evening with their friends are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What if you take too much?
DAVID NUTT Yeah, well, very cleverly. We've worked out how to plateau out the effect, so. If you take too much, you're just wasting your money because the effect doesn't go on, unlike with alcohol, which just builds up and builds up until it kills you. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who would quite like the pleasurable effects of alcohol, but they don't want the calories, which of course are huge in alcohol, our drink has very few calories, but also they don't want to damage their body or put their body at risk. So I think the population will be very welcoming of this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does it taste?
DAVID NUTT Tastes like whenever you want to put it in. So, you choose your favorite cocktail, and we put it in there. It's a mixer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that we have a hostility toward drug innovation. Why do you think so? I mean, isn't there money in this?
DAVID NUTT I mean, the drinks industry knows it's going to come, but it's going to fight tooth and nail to stop it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Until it starts producing it.
DAVID NUTT Exactly. It's just like those e-cigarettes. Once they realize that people want safer cigarettes, the industry will then switch. I don't know if you saw a couple of weeks ago that Corona, the people that make Mexican beer, Corona, they took out a 200-million-pound share of a cannabis company in Canada with a view to making a cannabis drink. So I think that the alcohol industry realizes the future is going to be much more complex.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how many evenings have you spent by the fire with a nice hot alcosynth toddy?
DAVID NUTT I prefer it with ice in it, but quite a few. But I never thought about it, it probably would go into a nice glass of hot milk as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you really think that this is gonna to work? You say that in a couple of months there'll be a patent out there. Do you think this will actually get to market?
DAVID NUTT Yep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You do.
DAVID NUTT It'll do it in very interesting places, like, for instance, the Middle East, where alcohol is forbidden. Huge, huge market there. China, half of all the alcohol sales in the world are in China. Chinese government is desperate. We're working with the Chinese government at present trying to work out ways in which we could minimize the damage to the Chinese economy of drinking. There are smart places out there that will accept this enthusiastically, I'm certain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about UK and the States?
DAVID NUTT I think the UK is, we're very backward, but I think the US, with your more rational approach in many states to recreational cannabis, there's no conceivable reason or intellectual reason why you wouldn't then support a safer alcohol, would you? I mean, you've been rational about cannabis, maybe you'll be rational about this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE David, thank you very much.
DAVID NUTT It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE David Nutt is the director of the neuro psychopharmacology unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Ellen Li. Xandra Ellin writes our unique newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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