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Why does New England rank highest in alcohol use?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Yesterday’s BDN featured a story by Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post that shows remarkable consistency in research of alcohol consumption in the US. New England consistently ranks highest in the country and Maine ranks in the top three states year after year.

Why is that?

Well, quick perspective check: What businesses are open in your town after 9pm?

We have known for decades that a lack of recreational opportunities results in young people experimenting with drugs and alcohol. What we pay less attention to is that those trends continue into adulthood. We also know that rural areas tend to embrace outdoor recreation. What we overlook is that these traditions and outlets generally include alcohol.

When’s the last time you went “upta camp” without a bottle or some beer?

Unemployment rates, lower economic status, and a lack of satisfaction with one’s career are associated with higher rates of alcohol use. Maine’s employment opportunities and economic trends tend to lag well behind the rest of the country.

Maine consistently ranks high in rates of depression and anxiety. Many of us are self-medicating our emotions and conditions with alcohol. This of course is a recipe for poor health and dependence on a substance to cope with life challenges.

We all know that alcohol reduces inhibition but we tend not to consider what those are. Inhibitions are insecurities and fears. We refer to alcohol as “liquid courage” and use it to free ourselves from social anxiety. Worse, we often mix alcohol with medications designed to treat anxiety, which is a potentially fatal mix (benzodiazepines including Valium, Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan should never be mixed with alcohol).

In the midst of an “opiate epidemic” it’s easy to overlook a few key facts:

  1. Alcohol is a drug

  2. Alcohol causes the most health problems and fatalities in the US every year

  3. Alcohol use is steeped in our holiday traditions and most celebrations

  4. It is a cultural expectation that adults should drink at least “socially”

With the coming of the New Year, many of us will consider drinking less. For most of us, that will be an empty promise. The truth is that most of us do not meaningfully consider our use of alcohol until we’re forced to see it as a problem.

If the goal for any individual is to reduce alcohol consumption, then we must look meaningfully at two dynamics:

  1. What does alcohol do for us? (enjoyment, relaxation, lower anxiety and/or depression)

  2. What will we use instead to attain those things?

Those are deeply personal questions. I can tell you from many years of experience that the most fun, relaxed, and social people I know are recovering addicts and alcoholics. The quality of our relationships and life pursuits tends to be so much deeper with the absence of substance use. I recommend the literature of AA and NA to those who have never experienced addiction but want a better life.

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