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Binge Drinking Across Time and Cultures


slkinsey
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There's an interesting articles in the Health section of today's New York Times entitled When People Drink Themselves Silly, and Why, by Benedict Carey. Some excerpts:

. . . the dynamics of bingeing may have more to do with personal and cultural expectations than with the number of upside-down margaritas consumed. In their classic 1969 book, "Drunken Comportment," recently out in paperback, the social scientists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton wrote that the disconnect between the conventional wisdom on drunken behavior and the available evidence "is even now so scandalous as to exceed the limits of reasonable toleration."

They detailed the vast differences in the way people from diverse cultures behave after excessive alcohol. In contrast to nearby tribes, for example, the Yuruna Indians in the Xingu region of Brazil would become exceptionally reserved when rendered sideways by large helpings of moonshine. The Camba of eastern Bolivia would drink excessively twice a month. Sitting in a circle, they would toast one another, more lavishly with each pop.

The article goes on to detail how binge drinking behavior -- not to mention binge drinking itself -- changes depending on the cultural millieu and the attendant expectations of the binge drinkers. Interestingly, studies have shown that people exhibit expected binge-behaviors even when they have been tricked into thinking they have been consuming alcohol (and even more interesting, the reverse also appears to be true).

This got me to thinking about how binge drinking, binge drinking behavior and attitudes about the same have changed over the years. If you check out the second Thin Man movie (After the Thin Man), for example, you see that Nick and Nora return to their San Francisco home to face an uproarious cocktail party with everone getting pickled and acting out. Part of this is for effect. But my mother, whose parents threw plenty of swank cocktail parties back in those days and who remembers some from her early childhood, told me that it wasn't all that uncommon in those days for people at a typical upper middle class cocktail party to drink themselves to complete inebriation. This wasn't considered embarassing, as it would today among similar company, but was rather tolerated and even expected.

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Too bad the authorities in Britain didn't have the benefit of this study before they changed the bar times...

Britain's extended pub hours no cure

(03-05-2008) 04:00 PST London --- Changing Britain's drinking laws by letting pubs stay open later has failed to curb binge drinking, government officials acknowledged Tuesday.

By allowing some pubs, restaurants and bars to stay open beyond the traditional closing time of 11 p.m., ministers had hoped to end the nightly scramble to down as many drinks as possible before last call.

The government had hoped to overhaul Britain's dangerous relationship with alcohol, curb violence and foster a more relaxed approach to drinking more common in European countries such as France and Spain.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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Interestingly, studies have shown that people exhibit expected binge-behaviors even when they have been tricked into thinking they have been consuming alcohol (and even more interesting, the reverse also appears to be true).

I think this is what happened to a friend and me last Monday night at PDT :hmmm: ...

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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  • 5 months later...
If you check out the second Thin Man movie (After the Thin Man), for example, you see that Nick and Nora return to their San Francisco home to face an uproarious cocktail party with everone getting pickled and acting out.  Part of this is for effect.  But my mother, whose parents threw plenty of swank cocktail parties back in those days and who remembers some from her early childhood, told me that it wasn't all that uncommon in those days for people at a typical upper middle class cocktail party to drink themselves to complete inebriation.  This wasn't considered embarassing, as it would today among similar company, but was rather tolerated and even expected.

Hmmm... Still is in plenty of upper middle class circles here in New Orleans.

Steve Morgan

[T]he cocktail was originally intended as a brief drink, a quick aperitif to stimulate appetite and stiffen the flagging gustatory senses, but it has passed into accustomed usage as a drink to be absorbed in considerable quantity despite the admonitions of the judicious. -- Lucius Beebe

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Hmmm... Still is in plenty of upper middle class circles here in New Orleans.

Funny, I was about to post the same comment. It also happens in less than upper middle class circles. There just isn't a big stigma attached to getting bombed in this town, although it's a different style of drinking practiced by the natives than the one favored by the Bourbon Street tourists.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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Which is?

I've been giving some thought on how best to reply to this question (and hoping Todd would step in and take the pressure off, but I trust he'll throw his thoughts in on anything I've overlooked or gotten just plain wrong). Let me start by saying that he's absolutely right -- there is a clear difference in drinking styles at play here. Further, the comfort with alcohol spans the social spectrum, as he says. There are people in town who take a dim view of inebriation but they are comparatively rare and don't seem to wind up at any particular stratum. Grand old mansions, suburban cottages and rundown shotgun houses in the city all host their share of blowouts.

I think that in the end the most important difference may be a familiarity level. The "tourist style" Todd alludes to seems to stem from an attitude of "Hey, look at me! I'm drunk and I'm in public! Wheee!" The "native style" doesn't see any particular novelty in drinking. It's more along the lines of "It's a party (or a random Tuesday night) so, of course, I'm going to have a drink or two or seven. Pleasant things happen when I drink especially when others drink too." They may get equally bombed, they're just less likely to make too much of a fuss.

I'm tempted to draw a parallel to the new money/old money divide, New Orleans being (natch) the old money in this little analogy -- except with booze instead of cash. Alcohol has always been around and is always around and it's just part of the air (maybe literally). There's no real worry about not being able to get more and no real need to draw overly much attention to it. Someone coming from a relatively alcohol-poor background suddenly thrust in the free-flowing abundance of Bourbon Street may have the natural desire of the nouveau riche to live it up with the new-found plenty.

I think this dichotomy underlies many of the other differences we see (such as the fact that hurricanes are rarely consumed outside the French Quarter itself). It also leads to Orleanians becoming rather more focused on alcohol when they leave our little paradise -- suddenly they have to worry about the booze not being there anymore.

Of course, I may be completely full of it. I'd be interested to hear what others who have experienced this difference (or who don't think there is one) have to say.

Steve Morgan

[T]he cocktail was originally intended as a brief drink, a quick aperitif to stimulate appetite and stiffen the flagging gustatory senses, but it has passed into accustomed usage as a drink to be absorbed in considerable quantity despite the admonitions of the judicious. -- Lucius Beebe

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I'm tempted to draw a parallel to the new money/old money divide, New Orleans being (natch) the old money in this little analogy -- except with booze instead of cash. Alcohol has always been around and is always around and it's just part of the air (maybe literally). There's no real worry about not being able to get more and no real need to draw overly much attention to it. Someone coming from a relatively alcohol-poor background suddenly thrust in the free-flowing abundance of Bourbon Street may have the natural desire of the nouveau riche to live it up with the new-found plenty.

Personally, I'd like to nominate this for Metaphor of the Year.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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Interesting this topic should resurface at this time. A recent article in the newspaper indicates a group of college and university presidents have formed the "Amethyst Initiative", which is in favor of reducing the college drinking age to 18 from 21.

Here's a link to the story.

I went to college in the early/mid '70's, when the drinking age in my state was 18 for beer (3.2% alcohol content) and 21 for the "hard stuff". I have vivid memories of girls in my dormitory doing a lot of binge drinking of beer on Friday night, praying to the porcelain goddess for several hours afterward, sleeping to mid-afternoon, and then getting up and doing it all again on Saturday night. Binge drinking was a widespread activity among our student population. A few people had fake ID's so they could get into the "21 bars", but that was for social reasons more than for acess to alcohol.

I know of no studies indicating there's any reason to believe that binge drinking will stop, or even slow down, if the drinking age is lowered. In fact, I'm somewhat surprised to read that a group of fairly educated people would simply make this assumption, as they apparently have; none of the news stories I've read indicate they've cited any studies, statistics, etc. that would support their position. I'm hoping someone will find a link showing I'm wrong; that would at least restore a little of my faith in those involved in higher education.

Personally, my opinion is that if we can't talk college kids (and others) into behaving responsibly with alcohol now, we shouldn't expect to be able to just because the law has changed.

I'd love to hear your comments.

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"Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a

claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like

food."" - Kingsley Amis

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I think that in the end the most important difference may be a familiarity level. The "tourist style" Todd alludes to seems to stem from an attitude of "Hey, look at me! I'm drunk and I'm in public! Wheee!" The "native style" doesn't see any particular novelty in drinking. It's more along the lines of "It's a party (or a random Tuesday night) so, of course, I'm going to have a drink or two or seven. Pleasant things happen when I drink especially when others drink too." They may get equally bombed, they're just less likely to make too much of a fuss.

How do people get home once they're bombed? That for me is the major impediment to getting plowed like a cornfield at a friend's house.

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"How do you get home" indeed. I think that's cut back on the element of excess that used to exist.

The "native style" side of things does hinge upon an element of proximity. At university (where much of this begins) it's usually confined to a tight geographical area. In the Dashiell Hammett era of the Thin Man (I do prefer the written stories to the films, they're much more nihilistic), people of common classes generally lived in clusters (and, of course, you could have your driver get you home) and the Bacchanal reinforced the tribal ties.

(The role of Dionysian mysteries and the Bacchanalian orgies in the growth of Greek and Roman cultures is talked about less and less these days, I must say. Nor is the use of "soma" in the Aryan expansion into the Indus Valley brought up about the coffee urn at work anymore :sad: *)

The more egalitarian 50s led to new needs. In suburbs thrown up to accommodate an influx of people moving to urban centers, the cocktail hour of the community acted to quickly develop new bonds amongst people from disparate climes.

But this slowly passed as we moved into the 60s and 70s. I blame drugs, myself, which have less of a social element about them (that's only my rather ill-inforrmed opinion, however).

And then this was capped with the blight of suburban sprawl that came in the latter part of the lst century. I know, when I moved to Houston in the 80s, that a common lament was the "lack of friends like at home". Bonds developed at the workplace generally withered over the commute, as responsibility and common sense cut back (slowly) the swath of carnage that drunk driving was wreaking upon our increasingly mobile society. You really can't cut loose after work with your coworkers ( in the Japanese salaryman sense) when you're facing a one hour drive on freeways at 70 mph.

And so, like cockroaches dispersing in sudden light, the ties of alcoholic bonding were shattered as the men (primarily) of this modern age found themselves scurrying in different directions, to arrive home late in the evenings to their domesticity, and, perhaps, their lone cocktail taken broodingly in the dark of a veneered "den" as they dream of the camaraderie of their collegiate days.

Abroad, it's another story. It may be only a part of the mix, there is the element of shared trauma and such as well, but you do find that expatriate enclaves mirror the times described by Hammett. Where dinner parties are still the rule of the day, and large gatherings commonplace, and where friendships made last for decades beyond the posting itself. As Kent noted, you do have to worry about getting home, and in such places you're never too far away.

* - for the role of substance abuse in ancient history, I recommend The Code of the Warrior by Rick Fields. Also, on the subject of soma, have a chat with Cyrus Todiwalla at Cafe Spice Namaste (and other venues) in London some time. He's a good man to chat with.

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How do people get home once they're bombed? That for me is the major impediment to getting plowed like a cornfield at a friend's house.

Walk, generally. Or take the bus.

We were in Wisconsin for a recent trip and I was making an Affinity cocktail for someone who was curious. Someone else piped up, "Rob Roy or Perfect Scotch Manhattan". Ah ha! My Drinky Radar kicked in!

Turned out he was an ex-bartender/bar owner who had owned a string of restaurants, bars, and strip clubs in the Milwaukee, WI area in the 1960s through the 1980s.

Talk about an interesting guy!

Anyway, he was quite adamant about how much of a damper the enforcement of drunk driving laws had put on bar culture in rural and car centered communities. For better or for worse, I guess.

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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Anyway, he was quite adamant about how much of a damper the enforcement of drunk driving laws had put on bar culture in rural and car centered communities.  For better or for worse, I guess.

Absolutely! It's not a coincidence, I think, that many of the centers of cocktail culture in the US right now are cities with a relatively dense urban core and convenient access to decent modes of public transportation. This can take the form of subway, trolley, bus or even a reasonable number of taxicabs (which is what I usually take in New Orleans after an evening of boozing).

--

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This is a regular hot-topic in Ireland, and apparently the rate of closure of rural pubs is very high with more stringent drink-driving laws having come into force recently. Some pub owners have even taken to running minibuses to get people to and from the pub.

Obviously, this is a land where binge drinking is acceptable to many, and the norm among certain fairly wide circles. Even this week, on telling a friend that we'd scored a reservation in French Laundry, his response was "watch their faces when you try to order the amount of wine you normally would". California and Ireland might be at opposite ends of this particular spectrum, but I think we're both equally confused by the opposing stance!

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  • 3 weeks later...
I know of no studies indicating there's any reason to believe that binge drinking will stop, or even slow down, if the drinking age is lowered. In fact, I'm somewhat surprised to read that a group of fairly educated people would simply make this assumption, as they apparently have; none of the news stories I've read indicate they've cited any studies, statistics, etc. that would support their position. I'm hoping someone will find a link showing I'm wrong; that would at least restore a little of my faith in those involved in higher education.

I would have to assume that the reason these fairly educated people are advocating lowering the drinking age has to do with their liability exposure associated with under age drinking.

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Interesting this topic should resurface at this time.  A recent article in the newspaper indicates a group of college and university presidents have formed the "Amethyst Initiative", which is in favor of reducing the college drinking age to 18 from 21.

...

Personally, my opinion is that if we can't talk college kids (and others) into behaving responsibly with alcohol now, we shouldn't expect to be able to just because the law has changed.

I'd love to hear your comments.

I think that the drinking age should be lowered to 14 so kids have a good 2 years of drinking under their belt before they are allowed to get behind the wheel. :hmmm:

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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"How do you get home" indeed.  I think that's cut back on the element of excess that used to exist.

(The role of Dionysian mysteries and the Bacchanalian orgies in the growth of Greek and Roman cultures is talked about less and less these days, I must say.  Nor is the use of "soma" in the Aryan expansion into the Indus Valley brought up about the coffee urn at work anymore  :sad: *)

 

I thought that the Aryans lost access to Soma as they expanded into the lowlands of the Indus Valley and the ritual morphed from quaffing amanita muscaria tea into a more abstract concept of religion. :wink:

"How do you get home" indeed.  I think that's cut back on the element of excess that used to exist.

...

The more egalitarian 50s led to new needs.  In suburbs thrown up to accommodate an influx of people moving to urban centers, the cocktail hour of the community acted to quickly develop new bonds amongst people from disparate climes.

But this slowly passed as we moved into the 60s and 70s.  I blame drugs, myself, which have less of a social element about them (that's only my rather ill-inforrmed opinion, however).

I guess you never went to a 1960's style pot party. Also see comment regarding Soma *ritual* above.

In N. America I do tend to blame the drunk driving problem on the demise of the corner bar. I blame the demise of the corner bar on prohibitionism in our zoning departments. "Drugs" may have contributed a little to the demise of the cocktail hour but only because they provided alternatives. I think the expanded living space of our homes is partly to blame - in the past pubs and bars served part of the function of our living rooms as the social interaction space. We shot ourselves in the foot when we got bigger houses with more awake-space and found there was no one else around to be social with. :sad:

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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I thought that the Aryans lost access to Soma as they expanded into the lowlands of the Indus Valley and the ritual morphed from quaffing amanita muscaria tea into a more abstract concept of religion.  :wink:

I dunno...the magic mushroom link to soma is debatable. General thought (at least the thoughts of those generals I've asked, as well as Cyrus) is that it was booze.

Fermentation is one of the oldest and easiest methods of transmutation, and, to paraphrase Ben Franklin's quote on beer "it's the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy".

I guess you never went to a 1960's style pot party.

The 60's? I was still riding my wagon down the hill out front in the 60's!

:biggrin:

I'd say that the alternatives that drugs offered took away some of the generational ties that had existed before. Maybe that's why the old folks balked so much at drugs? They were alien to their way of life, and didn't fit into the worldview they'd existed with under their parents?

In N. America I do tend to blame the drunk driving problem on the demise of the corner bar.  I blame the demise of the corner bar on prohibitionism in our zoning departments.  "Drugs" may have contributed a little to the demise of the cocktail hour but only because they provided alternatives.  I think the expanded living space of our homes is partly to blame - in the past pubs and bars served part of the function of our living rooms as the social interaction space.  We shot ourselves in the foot when we got bigger houses with more awake-space and found there was no one else around to be social with.  :sad:

I like this point. It makes sense. We seized the opportunity to have the elbow room we'd never had before in a home, and we did away with our need for a shared space..... and in so doing lost something we won't get back.

:sad:

It all leaves me pining for a good Bacchanal.

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The demise of the corner bar in America is linked directly to suburban sprawl and the proliferation of car culture. In order to have a viable corner bar, there needs to be a sufficient number of people within walking distance. This is why there are plenty of corner bars in communities with sufficient population density (which also tend to have pretty good public transportation) and also why the cocktail revival has largely grown out of dense, older cities.

--

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