The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, January 21, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's blog at The Huffington Post website.

People Should Quit Drinking and Smoking - But Can They?

You Shouldn't Smoke Or Drink

Allen Carr is an Englishman who wrote bestsellers about quitting things (he died in 2006). Most famously, he wrote the all-time bestselling book about quitting smoking, "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking." Carr later (just before his death) wrote, "The Easy Way to Stop Drinking."

(Note: Carr had also written, several years earlier, "The Easy Way to Control Alcohol." As I write this, "Control Alcohol" is ranked 275,000 on Amazon, while "Stop Drinking" is at 10,000.)

I appreciate Carr's cognitive, non-disease approach, which tells people they're not quitting because they mistakenly believe (a) they enjoy their habit, (b) they can't quit because of withdrawal. Really, they just have to rearrange their thinking to realize they're smoking to relieve withdrawal, but withdrawal is largely mind-over-matter. (I know, there's a slight contradiction in there.)

As regards alcohol, I know three things:

  • Patrick McGovern, a University of Pennsylvania bio-archeologist, wrote in "Uncorking the Past" that in all five original centers of civilization early humans discovered the fermentation of alcohol, so that alcohol -- which he speculates accompanied the development of religion and art -- is, if not essential for civilization, an invariable concomitant to it.
  • Surveys consistently show that a large majority of drinkers report enjoying the experience and that alcohol makes them feel good.
  • Moderate drinkers (even when social class, diet and weight, and other health and social factors are controlled for) are less likely to develop and die from heart disease -- i.e., abstinence from alcohol is a leading risk factor for coronary artery disease and death.

You (And Certainly Your Kids) Shouldn't Take Drugs

Most American parents aspire for their children that they never smoke marijuana and don't drink until they're 21 (and maybe not even then).

But ...

  • By age 21, 90 percent of Americans have drunk alcohol (although quite a few eventually abstain).
  • More than 20 percent of 18-25-year-olds currently use illicit drugs; more older adults are using drugs than ever before -- among 50-year-olds illicit drug use went from less than three to more than six percent from 2002-2009.
  • Forty percent of kids now receive a psychoactive drug prescription (e.g., antidepressant, Adderall) by age 18.

Substance Abusers Should Permanently Abstain

I developed and help run an abstinence-oriented drug and alcohol treatment program. This is despite my allowing for moderation of drinking (like Carr did in his first alcohol book) in my books: "The Truth About Addiction and Recovery" and "7 Tools to Beat Addiction." But, as the head of one my treatment houses tells residents, "If you picked one of Dr. Peele's books up and followed its advice, you wouldn't be here -- now you have to abstain."

But ...

When we follow people up after treatment, we find that many do not abstain completely throughout the follow-up, but they still do not relapse to their prior state of addiction. In fact, since that experience is so common, we teach them how to prevent a slip from turning into a full-scale relapse.

Too Bad We're So Imperfect

It seems that personal and societal policies predicated on people not using or drinking face an uphill battle. And that's not just in America recently, but throughout the history of humankind.

So we need alternative fail-safe and fallback approaches and policies.