October 05, 2004
Drinking the Italian way

A month ago Chris lamented the prevalence of binge drinking at his college, and I remarked that the Italian teenagers I'd known seemed to have a different -- and healthier -- attitude towards drinking than Americans. I knew that was a highly anecdotal observation, but now it's supported by research:

Italians consume about as much alcohol as people from Britain or Finland, but a "Mediterranean" approach to drink means they are far less prone to binge drinking and drunkenness, according to research presented this week. ...

"There are protective cultural factors in Italy," said Enrico Tempesta, a scientist at Italy's Permanent Observatory on Alcohol and Youth, a government-sponsored body which held a symposium on the issue this week.

"Here, children and teenagers disapprove and tend to exclude from their circle a contemporary who gets drunk," he said on Tuesday.

Posted by Camassia at October 05, 2004 09:52 AM | TrackBack

One theory I've heard as to why binge drinking and drunkenness amongst Italians is lower is because of the long history it has had with inebriating beverages. Maybe it takes a few millenia for a group of people to learn how to manage it as a culture???

Posted by: Joe G. on October 5, 2004 11:27 AM

It is true that new intoxicants are culturally disruptive. That's why, for instance, Native Americans took hallucinogens for untold centuries and Europeans drank alcohol for untold centuries but when they adopted each other's drugs they caused a lot of trouble.

But is alcohol really newer to northern Europe than to southern Europe? I know beer first appeared in Mesopotamia very soon after they started cultivating barley, like 10,000 years ago, and I was under the impression that beermaking spread along with adoption of the crop. (Europeans did, in fact, adopt agriculture from their neighbors; they didn't invent it separately.) I also seem to remember there was a certain culture of binge drinking (and eating) in ancient Rome, but that might have been restricted to wealthy people.

Posted by: Camassia on October 5, 2004 11:43 AM

Another theory is that different forms of alcohol encourage abuse to a greater or lesser degree. On this approach, wine is meant to be sipped even as tequila is made to be slammed. Thomas Jefferson argued that "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whisky."

Posted by: Jason Spak on October 5, 2004 12:09 PM

Jefferson obviously never met a wino. Fortified wine is, in fact, the chosen poison of the majority of end-game alcoholics.
But, I don't know that Jefferson is to be trusted on the subject of wine. I seem to recall reading that he considered himself quite the connoisseur and squandered sums that he could not really afford importing the stuff from France. One wonders if Tom was wont to take a vintage Chateauneuf du Pape along to enhance his midnight creeps to the slave cabins...

Posted by: Rob on October 6, 2004 04:49 AM

I have heard that the 19th-century temperance movement happened when it did because the greater availability of distilled liquors led to a rise in alcoholism. (There was a book last year about England's 18th-century "gin craze", though I haven't read it.) I don't know why this affected northern Europe and North America and not southern Europe, however. Contra Jefferson, I don't see what the price of wine has to do with it, because the northerners of the lower classes drank ale and beer rather than wine anyway.

Posted by: Camassia on October 6, 2004 08:25 AM

There are many subjects on which I don't think Jefferson ought to be trusted, but I think he was on to something here. Beer and wine do not lend themselves to drunkenness in anything like the way that strong liquors (and I consider Thunderbird, Mad Dog, etc. to be strong liquors) do. Jefferson's point, I think, is that a society in which drinks like beer and wine are common is likely to have less of an alcohol problem than a society in which stronger liquors predominate, because in the latter more people will drink to get drunk.

To Rob, I would say that winos drink Mad Dog not because it's wine, but because it's fortified: it packs the most punch for the money.

To Camassia, I would say that I think you're on to something here. See this and that.

Posted by: Jason Spak on October 6, 2004 11:35 AM

OK, but I still don't get the northern/southern difference here. In the premodern era, both cultures habitually drank low-alcohol beverages with meals. (I've read the in Renaissance England, before tea and coffee took hold, people had beer with breakfast.) But starting in the 18th century, hard liquor became popular in the north but not in the south. It's not because northerners had no cheap alternative: they had beer. So was there some economic reason that hard liquor was bigger in the north, or what?

Posted by: Camassia on October 6, 2004 12:02 PM

On north/south a bit of research into the northern phenomenon of "going berserk" might shed some light:
"Modern scholars believe that certain examples of berserker rage to have been induced...by the consumption of drugs such as the hallucinogenic mushroom *Amanita muscaria*, or massive quantities of alcohol."
The bottom line, though, is that there seems to be a genetic component to alcoholism. So, while sickle cell, for instance, is more prevalent in certain southern ethnic groups, the alcoholism gene may be more present in Nordic types. Ultimately, an alcoholic will get thoroughly wasted on wine, beer, vodka, sterno, shaving lotion, whatever is at hand. The disease is in the alcoholic, not in the bottle.

Posted by: Rob on October 6, 2004 12:40 PM

"I've read [that] in Renaissance England, before tea and coffee took hold, people had beer with breakfast."

I seem to remember that when I was in late Thatcherite England I also had beer with breakfast (but to be fair this also occured on occasion whilst living Clintonian Pennsylvania, and then stopped occuring in Bushian Minnesota).

Posted by: Troy on October 6, 2004 04:11 PM

Drinking beer "with" breakfast really provides no insight concerning alcoholism. Now, if you want to talk about drinking beer "for" breakfast, well...they do call beer "liquid bread," but don't try to toast it.

Posted by: Rob on October 7, 2004 06:24 AM
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