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.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.