VIEW: Putting alcohol in its place —Saleem H Ali
The data suggests that alcohol consumption reduces professional productivity by slowing neural pathways. The poets could have done much better by drinking coffee or tea that has many beneficial antioxidants that have been shown to improve cognitive performance
While teaching a course on environmental risks, I often ask my students what they consider to be highest risk factor for premature death in their age range. They are usually shocked to learn that according to the US Centre for Disease Control use of alcohol is a leading risk factor in the three major causes of death among American youth: unintentional injuries (including motor vehicle crashes and drownings); suicides (one-fourth of all documented cases); and homicides. In one study, more than half of all murders in a calendar year were documented as related to alcohol use. Approximately 72 percent of rapes reported on US college campuses occur when victims are so intoxicated they are unable to consent or refuse. The statistics are indeed sobering.
My last visit to Pakistan was just around the turn of the Gregorian calendar year and I soon learnt that there was a wave of New Year Parties that would undoubtedly involve alcohol despite the official prohibition. I found myself debating the pros and cons of prohibition with young Pakistanis, many of whom were surprisingly uninformed about the larger context of alcohol prohibition debates worldwide. Most thought that it was simply an Islamic issue and few were aware that alcohol was prohibited in the United States during the early years of the 20th century. The mass movement that led to America’s prohibition era was not religious fanaticism but radical feminism. Battered wives and concerned mothers formed a formidable coalition to ban what they perceived to be the source of their woes.
Critics of this era argue that prohibition only led to black-marketing and mafioso politics, though there is no denying the fact that alcohol consumption actually declined during this period. Also, poor enforcement rather than restrictions themselves leads to black-marketing. As I discovered during a recent research visit to Madagascar, you can even get a black market for harmless commodities like the vanilla bean if there are price motives spurred by shadow markets.
Indeed, the dire consequences of alcohol are beginning to resurface in the West and there is a wave of micro-prohibitions in place. Native Americans and Aboriginal Canadians have begun to realise the havoc alcohol abuse can cause in their communities and many reservations, such as the Navajo tribe of Arizona, have decided to ban alcohol sales altogether. Several large universities, such as the University of Oklahoma, have completely banned alcohol use on campus and have very strict policies on non-compliance. The US government refuses to reimburse any travel expenses for meals involving alcohol. Indeed, many of our religious establishment might be pleasantly surprised to learn that George W Bush does not drink any alcohol, having learnt his lesson from reckless drinking in his twenties and how it almost destroyed his career.
Many Western visitors to Pakistan often comment with dismay on how pervasive cigarette smoking is across the country without realising that the social and health costs of alcohol are abysmally worse. As an environmental professional, I am fully in favour of restricting tobacco usage but at least we can take comfort in the fact that Pakistan has relatively low alcohol consumption and I sincerely hope that continues to be the case. In reality, the ethical case for restricting use of tobacco is considerably weaker than the case for restricting alcohol use because of cognitive impact of addictive alcohol and recreational drug use on human behaviour.
During my visit, I was disturbed to find a subculture of alcoholics developing in Pakistan, many in key areas of decision-making. Some were pitifully defending their consumption by quoting specious studies of how wine consumption is good for the heart without realising that the positive chemical ingredients in this regard can just as well be imbibed with a glass of grape juice. Others were offering a pathetic reflection on how poetic creativity is sparked by inebriation and all those odes to the vine that Urdu poets had written. Alas, the data in this regard suggests that alcohol consumption actually reduces professional productivity by slowing neural pathways. The poets could have done much better by drinking coffee perhaps or even tea that has many beneficial antioxidants that have been shown to improve cognitive performance.
Now there is an environmentally conscious place for alcohol consumption but it is not at the dinner table. It is perhaps in your cough syrup or mouthwash or better yet in your car’s fuel tank. The key chemical ingredient of alcoholic beverages is ethanol, which is one of the most efficient renewable fuels that can be used in cars. Just as alcoholic beverages are made by fermenting various grains and other carbohydrates, ethanol fuel can be produced from sugarcane and numerous other agricultural crops. Unlike petrol or natural gas which largely come from non-renewable fossilised remains of plants, ethanol can be quite literally grown like a crop. Brazil has shown tremendous leadership in developing an ethanol market and 22 percent of all new cars sold in Brazil can run on ethanol. The switch makes economic sense as well since ethanol is one-fourth the price of petrol.
As the new-year party season approaches, allow me the paternalistic posturing of suggesting that this paper’s educated readership should just say no to alcohol at the table — instead say yes to alcohol at the petrol pump. Let’s lobby for ethanol as a fuel for cars and make an environmentally positive statement here in Pakistan. For no matter how sparkling and alluring the bottle and the pretentious cultural cache that the advertising industry might conjure, alcoholic beverages will always be intoxicants. There are many things in the West we should emulate; alcohol consumption is certainly not one of them.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont in the United States. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org