Only 2 beers? Drinking is now part of the culture wars

Experts say that any amount of alcohol is dangerous, a reversal of earlier advice about moderation

Drinking beer (Getty Images)
Drinking beer (Getty Images)

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is usually not part of the nation’s seemingly endless culture wars. But that changed earlier this month, when the federal agency’s director, George Koob, said that the United States could, in the future, adapt Canada’s new drinking guidelines, which stipulate that adults should restrict themselves to only two drinks per week.

Sobriety has gained popularity in recent years, with the advent of Dry January and even alcohol-free bars. But the (somewhat exaggerated) prospect of Prohibition 2.0, which had been mounting for some time, suddenly seemed more real, at least to some. To others, the new Canadian guidance only conforms to new findings about the ill effects of alcohol on the human body.

A can of Budweiser Prohibition Brew, a non-alcoholic beer, is seen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada June 23, 2016. Picture taken June 23, 2016. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)
A can of Budweiser Prohibition Brew, a non-alcoholic beer, is seen in Toronto, Ontario, Canada June 23, 2016. Picture taken June 23, 2016. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

“We cannot talk about a so-called safe level of alcohol use. It doesn’t matter how much you drink — the risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage,” an official with the World Health Organization said in a statement issued early this year.

So far, however, no new recommendations have been proposed, let alone endorsed. But the controversy is evidence that the intersection of public health, personal choice and politics is as fraught as it has ever been.

Read more on Yahoo News: Just one alcoholic drink a day is linked to higher blood pressure, study finds, via CBS News

What the Canadians did

An orange cocktail seen from above, decorated with some red flower petals.
A cocktail with no alcohol at Sumadori Bar in Tokyo on Sept. 2, 2022. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Earlier this year, Canadian officials recommended that adults limit themselves to two drinks per week — that is, if they are unable to avoid drinking altogether. The main message from this new guidance is that "any amount of alcohol is not good for your health,” an Ontario public health official said at the time.

Some criticized the new guidelines for not considering the social connections that drinking culture can foster. Such connections are especially important, those critics argued, at a time of increased isolation.

Read more on Yahoo News: Canada's got a drinking problem — and one senator says Ottawa needs to step up, via CBC

What the science says

An enthusiastic crowd, mostly of women in T-shirts, shriek with delight.
Catherine Morrison, 23, left, and other fans at an early-morning watch party cheer on the U.S. women's national soccer team on Aug. 6 as it scores against Sweden in the World Cup. (Josh Morgan-USA Today via Reuters)

For many years, it was conventional wisdom that moderate drinking was beneficial, especially if red wine was involved.

That conventional wisdom turned out to be wrong, new research says. Any amount of alcohol, some studies have said, is toxic to various systems of the body. “Risk starts to go up well below levels where people would think, 'Oh, that person has an alcohol problem,'" a Canadian substance abuse researcher told The Week.

Drinking spiked during the pandemic, but many Americans appear to be rethinking their relationship to alcohol. Younger Americans in particular are embracing the anti-alcohol message, opting instead to use cannabis, which is becoming more widely available across the country for both medicinal and recreational purposes.

Read more on Yahoo News: No amount of alcohol is good for you, study says, via Washington Post

The political controversy

President Barack Obama enthusiastically raises a glass of beer.
President Barack Obama in Krün, southern Germany, in June 2015 for the Group of Seven summit, hoists a lager. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Speaking to the Daily Mail last week, Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, offered that the federal government could eventually issue guidelines similar to Canada’s. “If there's health benefits, I think people will start to re-evaluate where we're at,” he said.

Those guidelines would not keep anyone from guzzling martinis at lunch, Mad Men-style, forcing them to drink mocktails instead. Still, Koob’s suggestion outraged some conservatives, who saw it as the latest move by the Biden administration to restrict personal freedoms.

Members of the conservative media in recent years have falsely charged that Democrats want to end all meat consumption and force people to eat bugs. And now they were coming for alcohol, too? “I am a nondrinker, but this is ridiculous,” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., told Fox News.

Earlier this week, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, was asked about Koob’s apparent praise of the Canadian guidelines.

"I will leave it to the experts," she said.

President Biden does not drink. Neither did his predecessor, Donald Trump. George W. Bush also abstained from alcohol, having struggled with substance abuse as a younger man. Jimmy Carter avoided alcohol as well. Many other occupants of the Oval Office, however, loved their wine or scotch.

Read more on Yahoo News: These 8 Presidents Really Knew How to Drink