What is responsible drinking?

The paper today featured a full-page ad exhorting us to drink responsibly over the Labor Day weekend, good advice to be sure. The main point was an emphasis on the equivalency of different forms of drinking in terms of the total amount of alcohol: One 12-oz beer = one cocktail = one 5-oz glass of wine. Perhaps the thinking is that people lose track of the true amount they are consuming with lower-alcohol beverages. Just a couple of beers or a few glasses of wine, not like hitting the hard liquor, right? The tagline was “It’s not just what you drink, it’s how much.” Useful information I suppose but perhaps an oversimplification when it comes to wine, as we have seen so many times before.

My advice here would be to look at the question of not just how much you drink, but how you drink. Beer may be consumed with meals but is marketed as a “party” drink, or refreshment while watching TV or sporting events. Historically (and I mean a very long time ago) it was considered to be a sort of food, a way to get nutrition from grains in a relatively non-perishable form. But I would guess that today beer consumption with meals is only a fraction of the whole. With cocktails it is more clearly all about the drinking for many people (which may explain why this ad was sponsored by the distilled spirits council.)

But when it comes to wine, the pattern of how people consume it is different. While wine may be consumed without food, often it is part of the evening meal. Drinking with food both slows down the absorption of the alcohol and the pace of drinking. A great many other healthy behaviors are linked to wine consumption too, placing wine at the center of a healthy lifestyle. Simply comparing alcohol dosing to beer and distilled spirits misses this very important point about healthy drinking, by presuming that all forms of consumption are equally harmful. It frames wine as a drug instead of a food.

I would suggest that we replace the phrase “responsible drinking” with “healthy drinking” so that we frame the discussion in a more positive light. As long as we view alcohol through a lens that shows only the detrimental aspects of drinking, we paradoxically encourage the view of alcohol as a drug. But moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers and are healthier, especially with wine. Responsible drinking is healthy drinking, and the “how” and “what” do make a difference.


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