No Need to Spread Myths About Alcohol’s Dangers
In 1920 American Prohibition took effect, banning the production, sale, and transport of alcohol within the United States.
The temperance movement had long been critical of drinking, working for more than a century to outlaw the practice.
One way to try and put a stopper in a person’s alcohol consumption was to scare them straight.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were many mysterious cases of a person suddenly bursting into flame, with no clear cause. Spontaneous human combustion, they called it. A person would blaze up and burn down to little more than ash, with his or her surroundings left relatively unscathed.
A physician in 1799 examined all the cases he could find and said there was some common ground among the victims:
- All were heavy drinkers.
- All were overweight.
- And all were over age 60.
Novelist Charles Dickens breathed life into that rumor. In his novel Bleak House one character, a heavy drinker, burnt away to near-nothingness. Critics balked, but Dickens held his ground.
People in the temperance movement didn’t worry too much about plausibility — about the Bleak House character or about whether or not drinking and spontaneous human combustion were linked. They may not have started the rumor, but they found it handy as a way to scare people back onto the proverbial wagon (or to keep them on it in the first place). Spontaneous human combustion stories slowed considerably after Prohibition was repealed.
They need not have persisted in keeping that myth alive — though admittedly the prospect of burning away to a pile of ash may have made a fine deterrent. The risks of heavy drinking are pretty well documented these days.
Dangers of Drinking to Excess
Moderate drinking (one a day for women, or no more than two daily for men) is generally considered safe. Binge (four or more drinks on an occasion, for women, or five or more for men) or heavy (eight or more drinks a week, for women, or 15 or more, for men) drinking carry a lot of risks, both short- and long-term. Short-term dangers include:
- Injuries from car crashes, falls, drownings, or burns
- Violence from homicide, suicide, sexual assault, or domestic violence
- Alcohol poisoning (which can result in coma or death)
- Unsafe sex can result in unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases
Long-term risks include a number of diseases such as:
- High blood pressure, heart, liver, or other diseases
- Various cancers including of the mouth, breast, liver, colon
- A weakened immune system
- Learning, memory problems
- Mental health problems like depression
- Social problems like losing work, failing school, family strife
In short, there’s no need to keep a myth alive to stop a person from drinking. The real dangers have been well documented.
britannica.com – Temperance movement
thedailybeast.com – The Mysterious Case of Drinking & Spontaneous Human Combustion
cdc.gov – Alcohol Use and Your Health
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – Alcohol Awareness Month: Too Much Drink Can Do a Number on Your Immune System
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