In last 10 years or so, a global consensus has developed that smoking is bad for health. Many have left smoking. Many have reduced smoking. And even chain smokers admit smoking is harmful but find a justification to smoke anyway. However, a similar consensus does not exist about the harmfulness of alcohol – at least not at a social level.
There is awareness about the bad side of drinking but we like to give it the benefit of doubt. This can be for various reasons. Alcohol cannot be consumed everywhere and anywhere like smoking. We generally drink in spaces which are either makeshift arrangements or dedicated to drinking like a bar.
This low visibility means other than co drinkers none has seen you drink except, maybe, on social occasions making drinking a private pleasure rather than a public spectacle, for the most part at least.
Alcohol is generally associated with socializing and celebration – there is no better social ice breaker or equalizer than boozing. Doctors have long told alcohol, if taken in moderation, is actually good for heart. It is an essential part of many religious festivals and rituals therefore enjoys natural acceptability.
But the poor alcohol is not having a great time. In some countries, alcohol is banned for religious reasons, particularly the Islamic countries, but some other countries (or states in case of India) are either imposing ban on its promotion, distribution or consumption.
A bill passed recently in the Irish Parliament’s lower house limits alcohol advertising and requires alcohol products not be displayed with other products within a shop. In India there are some states where alcohol has always been banned but recently it has encountered new bastions of resistance. A few years ago, the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar banned alcohol in Bihar. He cited social and healthcare reasons for his decision. And the ban has translated into electoral gains for him.
Perhaps India would make a good study for why alcohol is facing new centers of resistance and prohibition. Given India’s social disparity, alcohol is both a devil, responsible for a range of social ills like worst forms of misogyny, irresponsible money blowing etc (mostly experienced by the poorer sections), and a pleasant fellow companion which symbolizes high living and aspirations (how the middle class views drinking).
Alcohol has a cultural taboo in India. Until roughly 30 years ago, drinking was a private matter. People hardly flaunted their drinking habits in open and those known to drink were frowned upon. In middle class circles, drinking was a moral degradation only film stars, businessmen and lower classes indulged into.
Moral degradation was not the only reason to hate drinks, though; that drinking was believed to have the potential to bring economic devastation was another. We heard enough instances of people ruining their lives due to drinking (somewhat exaggerated accounts) and these were disdainfully cited in casual conversations to demonize drinking and drinkers.
And to make the demonization complete, a woman was thrown into the self-destructive stories. After all, how can an unmoral practice be complete without the involvement of a woman you don’t have any legitimate relation with? The sinister duo behind every drinker’s self-destruction was alcohol and woman.
In Bengali the adage was may arr modh – drinking and woman. In the Hindi heartland, it was sharab aur sabab, roughly translating into drinking and debauchery. As if the presence of one was necessary to complete the amoral character of the other.
This view was held mainly by those who felt being nondrinkers placed them on a higher moral platform. And there was too much chest thumping about it and a tendency to judge others based on if they had any ‘bad’ habits, which chiefly meant if they drank.
Yet these self righteous nondrinkers would not spare an opportunity to remind others that knew enough people who drank (implying that they were familiar with elite circles and culture where drinking was a common practice, but they wouldn’t do it themselves out of sense of rectitude).
Drinking was mostly a moral question – it hardly had anything to do with healthcare concerns. Now, so many years later, many people drink moderately because of health reasons.
If you look at the three classes that were associated with drinking (the film stars, the business man and the lower classes), it will reveal two things: one is they are classes generally kept outside the purview of moral standards and the other is the economic devastation drinking was believed to result in could be best managed by the three classes. The film star and business man were wealthy and the poor man was anyway so devastated that no devastation could bring him down any further.
This class association meant anybody known to drink was seen as aristocratic or depraved, the former can be traced back to the upper class denizens, like the film star and businessman, the latter to the lower class guy. Normal people with family concerns were not known to drink (or at least they assiduously hid their drinking exploits).
Now drinking enjoys much more social acceptability. Many more people drink – and don’t make bones about it. (The saints have learnt to accept and co live.) When there is a family gathering or something it is not unusual to have discreet arrangements for drinks. At wedding parties there are separate drink counters. The number of youngsters drinking has shot up phenomenally. In fact, it has become a problem.
For youngsters or people in their middle ages drinking is a mix of aspiration and something they enjoy. Not that this aspiration was nonexistent earlier (as I said above drinks had an upper class appeal, too), but now people are more comfortable expressing them. (Commies would say the society has become capitalistic and lost its earlier humility and maybe they would be right.) Its logistics have also become easier. The 25 to 40 to 45 age group has more disposable income and they don’t mind blowing a bit of it in bars and pubs.
Most families are nuclear now, so drinking at home does not involve being frowned upon by an elder. In fact, people from earlier generations have become much more open to their children or grandchildren drinking. Drinking is considered a health hazard but not a moral degradation.
But drinking is becoming a problem with this generation. Professional stress, life style issues, more money to spend…are leading to over consumption of alcohol…which of course has its consequences. ..as if the walls of fear the earlier generation had built around them to keep the consequences of drinking away have collapsed. The problems the poorer classes faced are still there.
Irresponsible drinking habits have spawned devils like road accidents and healthcare issues. Thanks to this, drinking today is a favorite whipping horse of doctors who attribute almost all healthcare concerns, from obesity to high blood pressure, to drinking and smoking.
The lesson is simple: anything you overdo is bad.