Jews and Booze

cross-posted from Two Women Blogging

My grandfather had a theory about addiction. He believed that addiction was a sign of a less-evolved civilization, and that as a culture matured, the incidence of addiction dropped. This explained, to his satisfaction at least, why there were no Jewish alcoholics. I asked him once about Chinese opium addicts. He was not pleased.

I wonder what he would think of Lisa Miller’s article in Newsweek describing what she claims is a “growing problem of alcohol abuse in {Orthodox} communities” which is fueled in part by kiddush clubs. Kiddush clubs, apparently, are gatherings of men in the social hall during or after Shabbat services, and some are serving “fine single-malt whiskey with a sumptuous smorgasbord”. Miller quotes a rabbi, who says “It’s not only drinking, it’s idealized drinking, which is a very, very bad message for the kids.”

Idealized drinking? Anyone have any idea what that is?

Here’s my favorite part of the article:

The truth is, though, that Jews don’t drink—much. Historically, Jews have not had alcohol problems to the extent as some other religious groups—only 11 percent of Jewish men have problems with alcohol abuse and dependence, compared with 28 percent of non-Jewish men. Researchers aren’t sure why, but point to a possible combination of factors. It could be that Jews, who for generations have lived as guests in a host country, feel pressure to be “on our best behavior,” as Katz puts it. It could be that rigorous religious observance inoculates people against drunkenness—shown to be true across religions.

The prevalence numbers she quotes don’t match any studies I can find in the literature. She’s combining abuse and dependence, and that 11% prevalence rate is lower than any accepted prevalence rate for alcohol abuse. The prevalence of addiction or dependence varies from 10% to 20%, depending on the study approach and population, and the prevalence of abuse is higher and even more variable. Drug and alcohol abuse may vary among ethnic and religious groups, but there is no evidence that “rigorous religious observance inoculates people against drunkenness”. In fact, religious observance that forbids alcohol use tends to inoculate people against moderate drinking. The average per capita consumption of alcohol in heavily Southern Baptist counties in the American South is the same as in the Northeast, but the distribution is bimodal: people either don’t drink at all or they drink to excess.

I can’t find a single reputable study that confirms that Jews drink less than non-Jews. I can’t check Miller’s sources because she doesn’t provide them. Perhaps my grandfather is speaking to her from beyond the grave. Far as I can tell, it’s “shown to be true” because she says it is.

Miller goes on to suggest that the lower incidence of alcoholism in Jews is due to the prevalence of “a gene, also common in Asians, which can protect against alcohol abuse.” I presume she’s talking about the genes that code for two enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. These enzymes have a wide variation in their efficiency; people with the less efficient isoenzymes have a flushing reaction to alcohol similar to the symptoms of drinking while on Antabuse. Some early studies suggest that this variant may inhibit abusive drinking, but there’s no evidence it prevents addiction to other substances. And even if this is all true – that there’s an enzyme that “protects” against alcoholism – which Jewish gene pool is she referring to? The Ashkenazim? Sephardim? Jews from the Indian subcontinent? Or does she presume that all Orthodox Jews share a distinct gene pool, which is now being diluted by intermarriage, hence the sudden shonda of drunken Jews?

As my grandmother would say, feh.

Miller gave us a triple threat: bad science, lousy journalism and persistent religious stereotypes. Let’s hear it for Newsweek.
Addendum: A comment at TWB made me think I hit “publish” too fast and didn’t make my position clear. Here’s my response:

My fundamental objection to Miller’s piece: she’s wrong about the “lower incidence of alcoholism in Jews”. Every study I’ve every seen says that there are as many Jewish addicts as non-Jewish addicts. Alcoholics, cocaine addicts, sex addicts – we’re there. The reason I can’t find a reputable study saying otherwise is because there isn’t one.

Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that – I was working on this on and off for three days and wanted to get it published, but I may have hit the button too soon.