WASHINGTON — I think I earned my credentials nearly 50 years ago as a watcher of the drinking scene. I spent a summer traveling all around the United States, looking into how drinking affected the lives of the American people. I found a disturbing basic assumption being expressed wherever I went and by those scores of people I talked to: drinking is so locked into our society - our customs, our ceremonies, our entertainment, our celebrations - that it must always remain a part of our lives.
At the same time, I found much the same view applied to smoking: that it had become a part of our society and nothing much could or should be done about it.
Just in the past decade or so, the view on smoking suddenly changed. It is no longer in public favor. Indeed, it has become a public enemy. And the practice of smoking has been greatly reduced - although there is still a distance to go, particularly among young people who are still sucked in by cigarette advertising.
But 50 years later I find that drinking still is being looked upon as a lasting and irremovable part of our society. It is apparent that until this view changes, drinking with all its destructiveness will continue to be with us.
There has been no evidence of a slacking off of drinking over the years. Oh, yes, I'm quite aware of those TV advertisements from the beer people that counsel youths to be moderate in their drinking and, if they are drinking, to designate a driver who will stay sober and drive them home if they are out on the town.
But when I hear this message, I'm not hearing breweries that are showing how responsible they have become. Not at all. I'm hearing the voice of breweries that are making an effort to look responsible so that the public won't turn on them as it has on the manufacturers of cigarettes.
Years ago I found drinking was often (well over 50 percent of the time) involved in driving accidents when someone had been killed. That is true today, only with many more being killed because of the increased number of vehicles on the road.
Also years ago, I spent many hours with young people - at debutante parties in New Orleans, with students at several colleges, and with their parents all around the country who talked with me about problems with their children. From these many interviews, I found much evidence of heavy drinking among our youth. Today it goes on, as evidenced by stories about binge drinking on campuses all over the US. Not long ago I talked to a president of a fraternity who said that drunkenness was a weekend practice among many of the members and that there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it.
Back in the 1950s I attended several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where I heard heartbreaking stories of how drinking had ruined lives - and how hard of a struggle it was to quit.
I talked, too, to corporate leaders who reported on how much the drinking of their workers had cut into the productivity of their companies - as well as hurting the individuals and the families of the workers.
So everywhere I looked I found that drinking had a strong hold on Americans. And it still does. It is this continual attitude of acceptance of drinking that I find so disturbing.
It's obvious that drinking parents who counsel their children not to drink cannot be very persuasive. About all they can do is urge moderation and hope that the young people won't become heavy drinkers.
And what can a parent who drinks say to the youngster who uses other drugs when he, himself, is using the drug of alcohol? It's like the parents who smoke trying to curb smoking among their children. Indeed, there have been several studies over the years that showed that about the only children who didn't take up the habit of smoking were those with parents who set a good example.
But despite the evidence that drinking is still very much with us, I am hopeful. I don't accept the assumption that it is a part of our lives and must always remain with us. I think there will be a time - I hope very soon - when the American public will deal with drinking as it does with smoking: as a public enemy to be eradicated.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor