Alcohol, the individual and society: what history teaches us Conference Paper uri icon


  • Drinkers derive both pleasure and pain from drinking, but harm may come also to others. Through religious or secular rules, societies have sought to limit these "externalities" of drinking. Societal reactions have primarily focused on social harms from drinking; policy attention to casualties and chronic health effects is fairly recent. Drinking behaviour varies greatly according to the cultural framing of alcohol; societal policies tend to vary accordingly. Ecological constraints and social norms on preparation and use meant that alcohol was often available only sporadically in tribal and village societies. Alcohol production has been increasingly industrialized and marketing increasingly globalized in the modern era. Now, free trade agreements and the doctrine of consumer sovereignty increasingly limit the scope of national alcohol control policies. On the other hand, modern society demands exacting standards of attention and care incompatible with intoxication, for instance when driving a car or minding children. Managing the conflict between these and alcohol's ready availability is seen as a wholly individual rather than a societal responsibility. Those who fail the task are defined as alcoholics, and modern states have increasingly provided treatment for them. While there is a renewed public health concern about the externalities of drinking, substantial availability reductions have historically often required the mobilization of strong popular movements of remoralization.

publication date

  • June 1997