America's shy drinkers

Why are people increasingly ashamed of their alcohol consumption?

(Image credit: Illustrated | Alamy Stock Photo, iStock)

Does anyone really believe that, as the Centers for Disease Control reported last month, only five percent of American women have one drink every day? I know we are supposed to be celebrating the legacy of Susan B. Anthony this year, but between the mistreatment of immigrants and anti-Catholic vandalism, I think she would be more than satisfied. Pretending to be a nation of teetotalers seems like overdoing it slightly.

According to the CDC's metrics, if you are a woman and have, say, a daily glass of wine with dinner, you are a "heavy drinker." This definition, which graciously allows men to have as many as two drinks per day, is itself the result of CDC surveys, making the whole thing feel suspiciously circular.

I know this will be surprising to many of you, but the eggheads at this particular federal agency are not very good at numbers. There is simply no way to reconcile these absurd self-reported figures with what we actually know about the consumption of alcohol in the United States. Americans annually consume (or at least purchase) some 33 billion liters of alcohol. This would mean that the average adult must be putting back about 167 liters a year, which according to my bar-napkin math translates into more than a beer per day. Even accounting for actual teetotalers and very infrequent Thanksgiving and Christmas Day-type drinkers, it is impossible to believe that the vast majority of this consumption is concentrated in the hands of the happy few unafraid to tell a public health bureaucrat the truth.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Why are so many of us ashamed of our drinking habits? I blame the health and safety maniacs who seem to be under the impression that any adult activity that does not involve either water (when did people start drinking it?) or exercise is likely to result in what many sources describe as an "increased risk of death."

Here there is an unmistakable division along generational lines that seems to have been lost in the CDC report. For whatever reason, people my age and younger are terrified of the devil's buttermilk. For some this means preferring so-called "hard seltzer" to such actual beverages as beer or wine or, heaven help us, liquor.

This is how I know I'm getting old. It seems like only yesterday that people were afraid of drinking anything that was not the beer equivalent of a farm-to-table restaurant, which is why my misspent youth involved things like playing Beerio Kart with Hopslam Double IPA. I'm sure my body appreciated all the organic vegetable matter it was absorbing over the course of the four minutes it takes to beat Rainbow Road. Goodness knows what disgusting mush (fermented Fruity Pebbles?) forms the basis of these things now sold in cans whose packaging suggests that they are marketed more or less exclusively at middle-aged female Target shoppers. I mean really, if you would rather drink watered-down toilet vodka flavored with watermelon or raspberry than a beer, be my guest.

At least you are not drinking "mocktails," which is what predatory bartenders call it when they mix cranberry juice with soda and leave out the essential (and somewhat more expensive) ingredient and still charge you upwards of $10. Even worse are things like Kin, an attempt to recreate the experience of drinking alcohol without the, you know, alcohol part, which contains "adaptogens," "nootropics," and other worrisome-sounding ingredients that ostensibly "support neurotransmitters in charge of mood, pleasure, and reward for a boost of social stamina." How lovely.

What is the point of all this? Vox tells me that "A person's risk of death shot up as they [sic] drank more." I hesitate to draw attention to this apparently little-noticed medical fact, but everyone's "risk of death" is 100 percent. What these researchers mean is that the total avoidance of intoxicating substances might forestall this inevitability.

Go ahead. Never have a drink and live eight minutes longer. Enjoy your life.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.