The Neo-Prohibitionists are Back

american gothicThe wine industry really needs to take this seriously.

For 25 years, the U.S. government’s recommended dietary guidelines for alcohol consumption have urged moderation, mentioning some possible health benefits but also recommending men limit themselves to no more than two drinks per day and women to one drink or less. Now a panel of health experts is saying that may be too much, recommending the guidelines be cut in half for men. The one drink recommendation for women will remain unchanged.

You would think that such a change in policy would be based on new science. But that is not the case. The text of the guidelines focuses on binge drinking. It offers no new data on moderate drinking.  They dismiss all the previous studies showing a connection between heart health and moderate drinking, again with no new evidence, aside from speculation about what else might explain the data. The only support offered for the change in policy is “increasing evidence that even small amounts of alcohol have been linked to seven types of cancer, including breast cancer.”

Linked? What does that mean? Correlation is not causation. And how much additional risk are we talking about here? The fact they don’t say what the links are suggests the evidence of a significant “link” is weak. Moreover, if breast cancer is their concern why no change in the recommendations for women?

In short, this is not a science-based recommendation. It is nothing but moralizing.

What is behind the moralizing? The fact is this is nothing new.

Anti-pleasure advice is a constant background presence in our civilization. “There is more to life than being happy” according to all those folks who benefit from keeping our noses to the grindstone. “Pursue pleasure only in moderation; it will not lead to happiness” according to 2500 years of self-help books. We spend much time and many resources pursuing pleasure but then condemn it with a fervor usually reserved for death and taxes.

The U.S. was founded on Puritan religious principles that link moral virtue to self-denial and reject the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. Any indulgence in pleasure could put the soul at risk they thought. We’ve never quite given up on that thought, and throughout our history, despite the emergence of a consumer culture dedicated to scratching every itch, we continue to suspect that all this fun will lead to ruin.

But this is profoundly mistaken. All human activity depends on pleasure. Pleasure as an inherent quality of an activity that makes it rewarding and interesting. The pleasure I take in trying to understand a difficult passage in a text helps me look more intently and fruitfully at it, and helps me avoid distractions that lead me away from my goal. The pleasure we feel when absorbed in a task is not something added on to the absorption; rather it constitutes the absorption by reinforcing it. Pleasure strengthens our activities and helps us aim at their successful completion. Without pleasure we would be unmotivated, not because pleasure itself is a goal because it helps us achieve our other goals.

Pleasure is not some optional pursuit that we ought to suspend if we have the will power. Pleasure matters to us because it is fundamental to our motivational states—we are wired to care about it. We should not treat anything so central to our existence with the condescension typical of our puritanical intelligentsia. The pleasure deniers are not fully comfortable with being human.

If there is real science behind these recommendations, then let’s see the science. If not, shut up and encourage people to have a glass of wine.

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