In a toast, fictional cartoon character and “The Simpsons” patriarch Homer Simpson gave the world one of the most famous quotes about drinking: “To alcohol, the cause of — and solution to — all life’s problems.”
While this joke aligns well with the general criticism of modern life that the show was based on, there is a profound sadness to such a sentiment as it has come to represent the more carefree view we get about alcohol from the media and pop culture. Yes, it is an issue, but it is also a fundamental part of life and many of the problems it creates can be laughed off.
In the Media
From the debauchery of college comedies “Animal House” and “Old School” to the glorification of beers and cosmos of “Cheers” and “Sex and the City,” TV and film have spent the past few decades subtly informing viewers that drinking makes everything more fun.
Don Draper of “Mad Men” is the best fairly recent example on television; glorified despite his alcoholism and constant philandering. While the show is, at its heart, a meditation on his awful life choices, the publicity and fan attention to the show tend to lionize the bygone days when boys would be boys each time the fictional advertising executive fills up another glass of whiskey in the middle of the day at his office.
In a scene in season 2, Draper crashes his car while drinking and philandering. It seems to be more designed to surprise the audience than actually signify anything troubling about his behavior. Meanwhile, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was nearly a third of U.S. traffic-related deaths that year (while other figures say that alcohol is a factor in more than half of all fatal accidents at night), and this grim statistic speaks to the grave severity of shows like “Mad Men” portraying near-death crashes as minor plot points.
Music is no better. A study from the Society for the Study of Addiction revealed that the average adolescent in the United States is exposed to 34 references to alcohol in popular music every day.
DUIs & the Law
The United States suffers many more deaths on its roads than many countries in Europe, according to another study. The Netherlands, for example, only has 40 deaths per million people (each year) and the United Kingdom has 43, whereas 124 people per million die each year in the United States. These are total figures, not just alcohol-related but experts have cited stricter laws on drunk driving (lower legal blood alcohol limits and more widespread use of ignition locks for people who have been convicted of drunk driving) as a big part of the reason.
Germany, Scotland and Sweden all have lower blood-alcohol limits for drivers than the common 0.8 standard throughout the United States, and the Czech Republic has a zero-tolerance policy. They also have less pop culture influences promoting alcohol. While many people in Europe also watch “Mad Men” and listen to the same music, there is less constant exposure to messages that drinking irresponsibly is something to be tolerated. let alone celebrated.
There is some good news, however. In both the United States and United Kingdom, there is evidence that young people are learning when to say when. Though some cite the reason of economic challenges, millenials are drinking less.
This may mean the pop culture messages are having less effect on teens who now have more entertainment options and have been raised in a culture where irresponsible binge drinking is less celebrated. But there remains the need to be vigilant and watch out for what the kids are watching.