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Search for a Better Way to Drink : Coping With Demands of Holiday Season Consumption

November 26, 1987|DON OLDENBURG | The Washington Post

The person who opts for a tonic and lime at a party this holiday season, we are told, is less likely to be considered a stick-in-the-mud than in previous years. No guarantees, though.

Yes, more restaurants and private affairs push a non-alcoholic alternative to the usual. But when was the last time someone talked you out of an alcoholic drink?

What of the designated-driver concept--that most reasonable of ideas where one party-goer sits sober with his car keys in a glass nursing a ginger ale while the rest of the gang cuts loose? Growing awareness of the tragic consequences of driving while intoxicated has gained this method some acceptance. But doing it is another matter. So let's talk reality instead.

Going With the Flow

The No. 1 fact about alcohol use in the United States, according to recent research, is that about 70% of us touch the stuff regularly. That's not to say we're a nation of pie-eyed drinkers who see bottoms up as upright; but given a choice of abstinence and absinthe, most will go with the flow.

"Sensible drinking habits are something we need to encourage in our society," says Roger Vogler, a clinical psychologist at Pomona College in Claremont, who helps drinkers find a middle ground in their personal relationship with alcohol--somewhere prudently located between "on the wagon" and "under the table."

Contrary to some traditionalists who take an all-or-nothing approach to alcohol, Vogler contends "safe drinking," as he calls it, can work for the "vast majority of Americans" whose drinking habits fall short of alcoholism. Safe drinking, he says, is a much-needed shot of realism. And now, amid seasonal celebration, is prime time to give it some thought.

"We know our species well enough to know that three out of four drink," says Vogler, co-author of "The Better Way to Drink" (New Harbinger), who has studied how to beat alcohol abuse for almost 20 years.

'An Intelligent Decision'

"This is a matter of dealing with our species realistically. . . . For millions of mild abusers . . . we tell them don't do it at all, and then of course they do anyway. People need to know the facts so they can make an intelligent decision whether they're going to use alcohol at all.

"But if you are going to drink, you need some real and practical guidelines that minimize risks and maximize positive results."

Vogler, who restricts his own drinking to an occasional beer, believes the key to making drinking a controlled and positive experience is to understand individual drinking behavior in terms of blood-alcohol content.

"Alcohol at a level of .05 (percent blood-alcohol measurement) is fairly safe and above that is fairly unsafe," Vogler says. "How much is .05? About two drinks during the first hour for the average person weighing 120 pounds, or three for someone 150 to 180 pounds. After that, no one should drink more than one drink per hour . . . because the body burns off one drink per hour."

A drink by any other name? "As I define it," says Vogler, "a drink is one 12-ounce beer, one 4-ounce glass of 12% table wine, or 1 ounce of 80-proof liquor.

"So if a person who weighs 160 pounds drinks three scotches and does it every night, he is at the upper limit of moderation. But if he drinks much more, if he goes from three to four drinks, he is into the abusive range--especially if he does it every day, because his tolerance to alcohol is likely to increase and he'll have to drink more to get the same effects. He's got to do something about it."

Chad Emrick, a Denver psychologist who since 1978 has focused his practice on alcohol abuse and addictive behaviors, says there is growing evidence that some heavy drinkers who are not alcoholics can control their drinking habits.

Graduate to 'Serious Abuser'

Citing studies that group drinkers by consumption, Emrick says: "Of heavy social drinkers who consume three to five drinks a day, one out of four becomes a serious abuser" who will graduate to consuming eight or more drinks per occasion. That level of consumption is likely to cause some problems related to alcoholism, and 25% of those abusers go on to become alcoholics.

Yet the finding that encourages the "safe drinking" advocates is that about 50% of those heavy social drinkers never progress to alcoholism, and instead either moderate their drinking or abstain altogether.

Emrick tells of a 40-year-old Denver salesman well on the path to severe abuse. The man traveled a lot and ceremoniously ended every workday at a bar where he'd toss back several martinis. "The drinking behavior resulted in problems," recalls Emrick. His job was in jeopardy and his marriage was troubled.

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