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Why Does Society Think I'm Some Kind of Freak for Abstaining From Alcohol?

No one ever asks me why I don't shoot heroin.



No one ever asks me why I don't shoot heroin. Everyone in my circle intuitively understands that heroin is extremely destructive. It's highly addictive, disastrous for your health, there's a huge risk of overdose -- and the question of using it never comes up. 

But in the nearly three years since I quit drinking, I've had to explain this decision more times than I can count. The funny thing about this is that alcohol is arguably more harmful than many illegal drugs, heroin included. Alcohol is one of the most addictive drugs ever discovered. It's so addictive that heavy drinkers are at risk of death when they quit cold turkey, something that's not true for the majority of other drugs. I find it truly strange that my decision not to use this substance is treated as strange, rather than the other way around.

Alcohol is also responsible for more deaths than any illegal drug, a fact you would never learn from studying drug-war propaganda. In fact, alcohol is responsible for more deaths than all illegal drugs combined. This is related to the fact that alcohol use is so widespread compared to illegal drugs (roughly 9% of Americans use illegal drugs compared to 66% that use alcohol). But surely some of the problem stems from the fact that being legal is often conflated with being safe.

Alcohol use is treated so differently from illegal drug use precisely because it has become so normalized in our society thanks to its status as a legal intoxicant. An open bar is considered almost a prerequisite for a wedding and asking someone out for a drink is one of the most common ways to begin a relationship.  

The incredible amount of money spent on marketing campaigns, driven by the profit motive of international corporations, doesn't help matters much. A large percentage, if not the majority, of alcohol advertisements are aimed at subtly normalizing unhealthy drinking behavior. 

Take the famous Captain Morgan ad. This ad portrays a normal-looking young man who has chosen to drink at a bar rather than attend a wedding with his attractive blonde girlfriend. Dozens of bar patrons participate in his deception by acting out scenes from television programs, in order to help him trick his girlfriend into thinking he's at home rather than at the bar. Their ability to think quickly and come up with a clever way to "help" their friend demonstrates that they're all competent people capable of quick thinking, and the number of participants in the lie underscores the message that it's normal to lie to your partner about your drinking habits. T

This type of alcohol ad is extremely common. Alcohol advertisements have a long history of portraying alcohol as a tool to get sex, reinforcing the social perception that by lowering people's inhibitions, alcohol makes it easier to get laid. 

There's also celebrity sponsorship. Justin Timberlake was recently named "creative director" of Bud Light Platinum, a move no one seems to object to. But remember the controversy when an old picture of Michael Phelps smoking weed turned up?

All these advertising efforts are an integral part of the alcohol industry's campaign to lure in new and often underage customers and keep their existing customers drinking heavily. An overview of studies on the impact of alcohol advertising published by Oxford University found that 12 of 13 studies showed "an impact of exposure [to alcohol advertisements] on subsequent alcohol use, including initiation of drinking and heavier drinking amongst existing drinkers."

This is a good thing for the alcohol companies' shareholders—and for the government. In 2006 alone, state and local governments made roughly $18 billion off alcohol taxes. As for the industry, it's raking in profits and using them to make sure it stays on top: in 2008, Anheuser-Busch (the company that makes Budweiser) took in $39.7 billion in revenue, and put that money to work, contributing over $1.5 million to political campaigns through Anheuser-Busch PAC. And in 2010, the  California Beer and Beverage Distributors group financed the campaign against a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, proving the industry has a financial incentive to keep illegal drug use down.

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