Alcohol is woven into the fabric of American life. It is used to socialize, celebrate and relax. But for many, alcohol use comes with a steep price. The misuse of alcohol and drugs cost the United States $442 billion a year and close to 21 million people in the live with a substance use disorder.
In an effort to shine a light on alcohol addiction, the Yale School of Public Health screened HBO’s soon-to-be-released documentary film, Risky Drinking, followed by a panel discussion and dinner on November 17. The preview, held in Winslow Auditorium, was hosted by Vasilis Vasiliou, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. It was co-presented by HBO and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“While alcohol is used responsibly by many and, in moderation, may confer some health benefits, it is also a major public health problem that causes untold human suffering and death. This is an established problem and it is not getting any better, ” said Vasiliou, who studies the health effects of alcohol and drug use.
Risky Drinking follows the lives of four people, ranging in age from 28 to 55, who are struggling with alcohol dependence. The film’s objective, according to Academy and Emmy award winning director and panelist Ellen Goosenberg Kent, was to “do something science can’t do, to show how alcohol affects every aspect of behavior and well being.” The showing was scheduled for the eve of the Yale-Harvard football game on November 19, an event historically linked with alcohol consumption, which has, at times, led to tragedy.
Vasiliou said Yale’s showing of Risky Drinking was “timely,” as it came on the heels of a new U.S. Surgeon General’s report, which called substance abuse “an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss.” In addition, he said that more problems may be around the corner with the legalization of marijuana, as the interaction of the two substances may intensify an individual’s impairment.
The film introduces a young woman at a Halloween party, drinking avidly. “Sure, making a fool of yourself is the downside, but you get used to it,” she said, wiping away tears. Another protagonist is a middle-aged man, a former radio producer, was shown visiting his teenage son. “It would be nice if he could drink a little less,” the son says. His father recognizes that he had a problem. “People are depending on me. I want to fix it.”
Risky Drinking goes on to tell the stories of a woman who missed her daughter’s graduation because she was drinking. She admits, “drinking impacts my relationship with my kids.” The person with the most severe drinking problem in the film, an older man who had been in and out of detox programs many times, said “I have a problem. I’m not afraid to admit it.” He was in a band, but got kicked out because of his drinking. “It’s all about your next drink,” said the father of two. “It’s a horrible addiction and it doesn’t go away. I’m going to die.”
During the panel discussion, Goosenberg Kent said a lot of patients aren’t comfortable talking with their doctors about their alcohol consumption. “Physicians need to be trained to be respectful,” she said. “There’s a lot of resistance to regulating alcohol consumption.” Men in their 30s and 40s are the most common alcohol abusers, and 80 percent of people who have been treated for an alcohol problem relapse in the first year.
The consensus of the panelists was that Risky Drinking should be shown at schools across the country. “It’s very real,” an audience member said. “A lot of people are badly affected by this problem.”
Dean Paul Cleary described the film as “engaging and thought provoking.”
Some people are more vulnerable to alcohol than others, the panelists agreed, and treatment needs to be personalized to meet their needs. Opioid and heroin addiction may be the hot topic these days, but alcohol is and will continue to be a serious and costly problem for society to manage.
Thursday’s panel was rounded out with Carrie Wilkens of the Center for Motivation & Change, Stephanie O’Malley, professor at the Yale School of Medicine, and Patricia Powell and Deidra Roach, both of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.