Froma Harrop: What makes a heavy drinker?

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

There’s been a significant rise in “heavy drinking” among Americans, according to a new study out of the University of Washington.

But what do these researchers mean by “heavy drinking”? wine lovers must ask. For a woman, heavy drinking is defined as more than one glass of wine a day. For men, it’s more than two. Other definitions of heavy drinking use similar measures. But hmm.

I’m often a heavy drinker by these lights, but not by my lights. Many days, I’ll have two glasses of wine. Occasionally, I’ll have three. I don’t think that’s a big deal, and I don’t see myself in any kind of denial.

Is the Frenchwoman who takes a glass of rose with lunch and a cabernet at dinner a “heavy drinker”? And if she should add an aperitif before dinner and a dash of cognac when the meal ends two hours later — that is, consume four alcoholic beverages in the course of 24 hours — does that make her a “binge drinker,” as many would define her?

Even doctors pointing to the cardiac benefits of moderate consumption urge people to not start drinking for health reasons. Well, why not, unless the person is addicted to alcohol?

Other healthy adults should be able to split a bottle of wine with a friend without being told they are headed to the gutter. Somewhere in our society’s gut lives the notion of alcohol as inherently evil.

When experts talk about the one-drink-a-day limit for a woman, they ignore vast differences in the sizes, ages and health conditions of the sisterhood’s members.

“I can’t drink anything,” my 90-year-old aunt Shirley told me during a recent dinner out, “but would you like another glass of white?”

Aunt Shirley has only 102 pounds on her but a ton of wisdom.

Even getting tipsy now and then should be the drinker’s own business, assuming that he or she doesn’t then drive. On that subject, campaigns against drunken driving have succeeded in sharply reducing alcohol-fueled fatalities on the road. Unfortunately, the modern-day temperance movement has gotten into its head that the way to push these numbers still lower is to make alcoholic beverages more expensive through higher taxes.

In truth, the dangerous drivers are typically alcoholics with repeated arrests and blood alcohol levels that are double the legal maximum or more. They are not real sensitive to the price of the substance.

Promoting higher prices as a response to campus binge drinking is also a non-solution. The problem of students’ downing rotgut until they pass out is not just of too much alcohol but of too little civilization.

Giancarlo Gariglio, editor-in-chief of Slow Wine Magazine, touched on this in his criticisms of a European Union plan to discourage binge drinking with minimum prices and regulated alcoholic percentages. His big complaint was it lumped artisanal wines with industrial, pre-mixed alcohol beverages.

“Without culture,” he wrote, “we drink poorly and we don’t even enjoy ourselves, because we gulp down rubbish.”

Taxes on alcohol are, of course, regressive. The Beer Institute, an industry trade group, reports that beer drinkers pay $5.6 billion a year in hidden excise taxes alone — hidden because they are levied at the brewery.

Low- and middle-income Americans are beer’s chief consumers. The institute estimates that households earning less than $50,000 per year pay half of beer taxes.

The battle is on to define moderate drinking. If that means dishing out the same guidelines to a skinny Nancy Reagan at 93 and a large Melissa McCarthy at 44, then they’re not going to say much.


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