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Controversy Grows Over 'Moderate' Drinking

December 30, 1986|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Roger Vogler has opined, in interviews and talk shows, about holiday drinking so often that he has a sheaf of papers specially prepared for such occasions, summarizing what hosts and guests can do to get through this time of year as safely as possible.

As such, with appearances on television and radio and in newspaper and magazine interviews, the Pomona College psychologist has emerged as a key spokesman in what seems to be a new national emphasis on "moderate" drinking.

Just as quickly as this is happening, though, a controversy of sorts has opened up. Critics contend that trying to define such amorphous terms as moderate or socially responsible drinking is pointless and that the new attention to the concept is little more than finding ways to rationalize alcohol abuse.

Industry Promotion

The main alcoholic beverage industry group, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, has joined in the fray, distributing a holiday season press kit noting that the council has, for years, "promoted safe, responsible, moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages for those who choose to drink." The industry campaign also draws on a small number of research studies that have tentatively linked moderate drinking with modest health benefits.

In response, a quartet of alcohol abuse experts published a letter in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. criticizing the new emphasis on moderation and health as a canard, warning that "the scientific community and the media should rebuff attempts . . . to exploit these research findings."

Among those signing the letter was Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Los Angeles alcohol abuse expert, who discussed his views in an interview.

"Just the other day," Takamine said, "I heard one guy on some television show pooh-poohing alcoholism and saying crack (cheap street cocaine) is the big thing (in terms of abuse potential).

"But other drugs come and go and alcohol keeps running like the Mississippi River."

Vogler doesn't argue the point about alcohol's pervasive role in society. But in his media appearances and in "The Better Way to Drink," a book he first published in 1982, Vogler has become a champion of the contention that drinking in moderation can be learned behavior and that most alcohol abuse isn't a sickness at all, just bad behavior that can be corrected. The book was written in concert with Sacramento psychologist Wayne Bartz.

Vogler argues that, except for a small number of extreme alcohol abusers, the notion that there is a disease called alcoholism is inaccurate, a point on which he comes into direct conflict with much of mainstream alcoholism therapy--most notably Alcoholics Anonymous, a spokesman for which declined to discuss Vogler and his work.

Sitting in his office at Pomona College's Claremont campus, Vogler rifled through his special holiday drinking file, expanding on tidbits uncovered as he went.

Vogler's ideas about moderate drinking are predicated on the objective of drinking so as not to exceed a level of alcohol in the blood of .055%--a little more than half the .10% alcohol content necessary to be presumed guilty of drunk driving. A .20 blood alcohol level would connote extreme drunkenness and a level of .50 could mean coma or death.

Drinking and party-going behavior, then, Vogler said, should be predicated on means to stay within the .055 limit--a level of alcohol influence that stops short of the feeling most people would equate with being tipsy or drunk but recognizes that perhaps the main reason humans use alcohol is to feel a little high.

Staying within the limit may be a little trickier than it would seem at first flush, though, Vogler said. In studies that he and his research associates still have not published, Vogler said he has confirmed that one's awareness of an alcohol high is subject to what is called an "adaptation" response similar to the body's reactions to odors, taste and strong illumination.

In that sense, Vogler said, just as a light seems brightest to the eye when a lamp is first turned on or a kitchen filled with the odor of garlic is at its most pungent when it is first entered, the alcohol high is freshest and most enticing when it is first achieved. If a drinker continues to drink and pushes his or her blood alcohol level above .055%, Vogler said, the higher high won't feel materially better and the descent past .055% again will seem a far different, definitely worse sensation than the same level when it was first reached.

"You are definitely going to feel more euphoric (when you first reach .055%) than when the same blood alcohol level is reached on the way (back) down," he said. "Pay attention to it."

Drinking Strategy

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