Further Reading

Why do Jews endorse AA when they don't buy that disease crap?

Dear Dr. Peele:

You are the greatest. I've read all your books. Here's the question: How is it that America has adopted the (morbid) Celtic-Slavic attitude toward alcohol and not the far healthier Oriental or Mediterranean attitude?

I think, for example, of Ann Landers. Here is a Jewish woman who probably has no alcoholics in her family. Yet every other week in her column she sings the praises of AA, and recommends it as THE solution to drinking problems. Why aren't American ethnic groups with tiny rates of alcoholism standing behind you, instead of accepting the "AA-alcoholism-is-a-disease" approach to the problem?

Yours sincerely,

The Bible Belt

Dear Bill:

You're my kind of guy. And from the middle of the Bible Belt yet (talk about Temperance).

In general, Jews do reject the disease theory. If you look at my "Moral Vision of Addiction" (in Section "Criminality, Values....), I discuss the Jewish (and Chinese) experience with alcohol. I especially focus on work by Glassner and Berg, two sociologists who believed alcoholism was growing among Jewish Americans, and who did a community study in an unnamed upstate NY city (I suspect Syracuse) as a result. They found no Jewish problem drinkers. Accepting all reports of Jewish alcoholics by activists in the city, they concluded Jews showed <.1% alcoholism incidence in this city.

Moreover, Jews identified alcoholism as a non-Jewish disease, and Jews themselves were moralistic about people who drank too much or who behaved badly while drinking. In other words, social attitudes determined problem drinking, and the most successful attitudes for preventing alcoholism were those which highly disapproved of alcoholic-type drinking. I also discuss a finding by a New York City sociologist who examined arrest records in Chinatown and found that, between the years 1933 and 1949, there were 15,515 records -- not one of which reported drunkenness in the charge.

So it isn't true to say that all Americans accept the disease theory. There are many pockets of active (or simply uncomprehending) rejection of the disease theory of alcoholism. Survey research by the novelist-sociologist-priest, Father Greeley, at the National Opinion Research Center, entitled "Ethnic Drinking Subcultures," along with the national surveys conducted by Berkeley's Alcohol Research Group, show how remarkably differentiated American drinking problems and attitudes are by ethnic group.

But when members of these groups become public figures and are asked about alcoholism (like Ann Landers), Jews (and everybody else) feel obligated to give a socially supported response, and everyone knows that when you have a drinking problem, you need to seek help, and that means -- inevitably -- AA and 12 step treatment. So we can forgive Ann for going for that hunk of baloney. They don't let you write syndicated columns if you don't toe that line.

Moreover, as national policy, we have absorbed and propagated the worst attitudes towards alcohol (as you so beautifully put it, the "morbid Celtic-Slavic" ones). If you look at my library section on "The Benefits of Alcohol," and moreover Chapter 3 in "Diseasing of America," you can see I regularly combat this phenomenon of the blind leading the sighted, where the individuals and groups who have the worst drinking problems become role models, therapists and teachers. In the U.S., treatment is provided almost entirely by otherwise untrained recovering alcoholics.

This "repentant sinner" approach to treatment leads to all-out antialcohol propaganda campaigns starting early in grade school -- they gave my 2nd grade daughter stickers saying things like, "Alcohol Kills Like Poison". When they bring someone in to lecture about alcohol (like drugs), school authorities feel obligated to find those who have had the worst drinking experiences and who have demonstrated the least control. This is, of course, the moralistic temperance lecture -- "this is what happens to you if you drink (or use drugs)."

Think about why it doesn't strike authorities as more appropriate (especially considering that alcohol is ubiquitous among the young in our society) to bring in people who drink or who have taken marijuana but who incorporate this within a purposeful existence. This group, which seemingly can't be exposed to children, is in fact the overwhelming majority of drinkers and MJ smokers! Moreover, this results in children of perfectly healthy social drinkers receiving their education in alcohol from misfits who don't understand how to drink or control themselves, while perfectly healthy drinkers are intimidated from raising their voices, and perhaps even from speaking frankly to their children!

In areas like alcohol, drugs, and sex, the U.S. public health approach regularly places moralism above efficacy, which makes us the only nation to reject needle exchange, and which makes safe sex education here an impossibility (leaving us the world's leading advanced nation in teenage pregnancy by a wide margin). We follow the debilitated blindly into self-destruction.


Barnett, M. L. (1955). Alcoholism in the Cantonese of New York City: An anthropological study. In O. Diethelm (Ed.), Etiology of chronic alcoholism (pp. 179-227). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Blum, R. H., & Blum, E. M. (1969). A cultural case study. In R. H. Blum et al. (Eds.), Drugs: Vol. 1. Society and drugs (pp. 188-227). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cahalan, D. (1970). Problem drinkers: A national survey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cahalan D., & Room, R. (1974). Problem drinking among American men. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies.

Glassner, B., & Berg, B. (1980). How Jews avoid drinking problems. American Sociological Review, 45:647-664.

Greeley, A. M., McCready, W. C., & Theisen, G. (1980). Ethnic drinking subcultures. New York: Praeger.