Vice Squad
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Understanding Abstinence

Yesterday's post drew upon the April 2007 edition of the UK-based journal Addiction, and obliquely noted that in the course of a year about 1/3 of American adults abstain completely from consuming alcoholic beverages. A slightly smaller percentage abstain from all forms of gambling, including the purchase of lottery tickets. Abstention is quite an important phenomenon in the vice world, and more so to Americans than to the British.

An editorial in that same April 2007 edition of Addiction suggests that vice researchers and commentators do not give abstinence its full due. To the non-abstinent, abstinence can seem to be simplistic and perhaps even misguided, especially when it moves from the private sphere into public policy. But that is no reason not to try to understand this long-term and recurrent approach to vice:
Whether abstinence is good, bad or indifferent we leave to the reader; but we are convinced that no purpose is served by dismissing the concept out of hand....Ideas that are merely disagreeable, that confer no benefit whatsoever, tend to have short histories and few followers. If abstinence were one of those ideas, if it were a pointless exercise in Grundyism, it would never have gained the ascendancy it has over the American imagination.
The authors -- Jessica Warner and Janine Riviere -- then suggest a few reasons for the appeal of abstinence, and why that appeal is stronger in the US than in the UK. (Part of the answer to the latter inquiry: British irony and wit.) While a simplistic approach to a problem sounds unsatisfying, an approach marked by simplicity has its attractions, as the authors note. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling has emphasised the "focal" effect of abstinence. If your rule is to have no more than two beers, well, what is so special about two? Why not one, or three? (And precisely what constitutes a single beer?) It would seem that someone who is concerned about drinking too much alcohol could adopt a "two beer" rule, or a rule to cut alcohol consumption by 50 percent. But these less-rigorous approaches, for many people, do not work as well as a "cold turkey" strategy, which makes the rule perfectly clear and any evasion immediately evident.

Incidentally, Jessica Warner is the author of an informative and entertaining book about the gin epidemic that surged through Britain early in the 18th Century.

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