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Temperance: An Old Cycle Repeats Itself

Gina Kolata
The New York Times

January 1, 1991

Today is the day after the biggest drinking holiday of the year. Although many Americans presumably overindulged, more and more are looking with disdain on the rite of getting drunk.

At the same time, the nation's tolerance for cigarette smoking is growing thin, and the use of drugs like marijuana and cocaine has gone from glamorous to despicable in a few short years, social scientists have found.

In fact, experts say, America is in the midst of a major new temperance movement, the third in its history.

"There has been a significant shift away from accepting drugs as being normal, as being with it, as being chic," said Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, president of Phoenix House Foundation, a drug treatment and education center in New York, and chairman of the Governor's Advisory Council on Drug Abuse.

"Ten years ago, there was still a belief that one could be smarter, sexier and work better if one used drugs," he said. But now "there is a considerable awareness at all levels of society, both rich and poor, that drug use is dangerous and that one will pay personal as well as social dues for using drugs."

Dr. Herbert Kleber, deputy director of the office of demand reduction in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, agreed. "In the 1960's and 1970's, drug use became what I and others call normalized," he said. "The non-user was the loner. But over the past 5 to 10 years, that attitude has begun to shift."

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted each year by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, shows a steady decline over the past decade in the use of alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs. The survey, conducted from March through June, used personal interviews combined with questionnaires and involved 9,259 Americans, aged 12 and over, who are representative of thh population.

For example, according to the 1990 data, released at the end of December, the percentage of young adults aged 18 to 25 who said they used alcohol in the past month fell to 63 in 1990 from a peak of 76 percent in 1979. The percentage of those who said they had smoked cigarettes in the past month dropped to 32 percent from a peak of 50 percent in 1976. The percentage who said they had used cocaine in the past month plunged to 2 percent from 9 percent in its peak year, 1979. And the percentage using an illicit drug in the past month plummeted to 15 percent from 37 percent in 1982, the first time the question was asked.

Gallup polls conducted by telephone in July and December found fewer Americans are drinking and smoking. The December poll, which involved a national sample of 1,007 adults aged 18 or older, found that 57 percent said they sometimes drank alcoholic beverages. In 1978, 71 percent said they did. In the July Gallup poll, based on 1,240 adults, 27 percent said they had smoked cigarettes in the past week. In 1954, the smoking high point, 45 percent said they had smoked in the week before the poll was taken.

The Gordon S. Black Corporation, a polling company in Rochester that has tracked American attitudes about drugs and alcohol since 1987, found that even in the past three years it has seen marked shifts. For example, in 1987, 66 percent of teenagers said that taking drugs frightened them. In 1990, 74 percent were afraid of taking drugs. In 1987, 32 percent of adults said that people who had one or two drinks a day were at great risk. In 1990, that percentage increased to 39 percent. The company polls a national sample of 7,000 to 8,500 people, Mr. Black said.

An Intensifying Trend

Dr. Rosenthal, Dr. Kleber and others predicted that the trend against drinking, smoking and drug use would intensify in the next decade. One expert, Dr. David F. Musto, a historian of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, even predicted that alcohol would meet with the kind of social disapproval now reserved for cigarettes.

If such temperance takes hold and drug use falls to very low levels in the middle class, some experts fear politicians will turn their backs on poor people who may still desperately need publicly financed drug treatment services.

"The danger is that we will have a shrinking political interest in the problem and the most vulnerable and high risk populations will not get the kind of services they need," Dr. Rosenthal said.

But Dr. Ansley Hamid, an anthropologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who studies drug use in the inner city, said there was less tolerance for drugs there too. Drug use "is definitely starting to wane," he said. "People are using much less cocaine. They have cut back on marijuana and alcohol as well. All the assumptions we had about the drug world are being shook up a little bit."

Shift in Attitudes

Dr. Musto noted that the change in attitudes toward drinking and drugs was so profound that many people had disowned notions they held not too long ago.

"People don't realize how much their attitudes have shifted," Dr. Musto said, adding that the change occurred gradually but steadily over the past decade. People often are only aware of how profound the social movement has been when they look at movies from the 1970's, when scenes of drinking and drug use were common or when they look back at incidents that seemed perfectly normal in the not so distant past.

Dr. Charles Blitzer, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, recalled his first day on a job in the 1960's when he was taken to lunch by his new colleagues. He was the only person at the table who did not order an alcoholic beverage. A colleague turned to him, he recalled, "with a look of horror on her face and said, 'You do drink, don't you?' "

Dr. Musto said that although he never enjoyed smoking, the social pressure to smoke when he was in college in the 1950's was so great that "I felt it was my duty to find my brand."

A Backlash May Be Next

He explained that this was the third temperance movement in American history. Both previous movements lasted 20 to 30 years, both were accompanied by a health consciousness like the one gripping American today, and both, at their peaks, took on a moralistic tone that led to a backlash, a new age when drinking and drugs were encouraged.

The first temperance movement began around 1820 and peaked around 1850, Dr. Musto said. At that time, all of New England as well as many other states prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages. This was followed by an upsurge in drinking, which peaked in 1890. Then Americans began to turn against alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. In 1920, the nation prohibited the sale of alcohol. Prohibition ended in 1933 in part, Dr. Musto said, because the Federal Government wanted the revenue it could raise by taxing alcoholic beverages. A new era of tolerance for drugs and alcohol began, which peaked around 1979.

The turning point for every tolerance movement came when more and more Americans began to see for themselves the ravages of drug use, Dr. Musto said. Dr. Kleber stressed that the turn away from drugs and alcohol was given impetus by movements like the parents' movement, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and National Families in Action, a group that fights the availability of drugs to teen-agers.

Penalties for Marijuana

Sue Rusche, a founder of National Families in Action, said she began the group in 1977 when she and other parents were appalled by statements from national leaders that advocated teaching teen-agers to learn to use drugs responsibly and by the proliferation of stores selling drug paraphernalia. Eleven states lifted criminal penalties against marijuana use in the 1970's. "Professionals were telling us not to worry if our kids used marijuana," Ms. Rusche said.

But two of the states, Alaska and Oregon, have recently voted to recriminalize marijuana, she said.

Ms. Rusche and others began to speak out vociferously against drugs. Now, she said, "there has been a big attitudinal change."

Dr. Musto added that if the current temperance movement followed the patterns of the past two movements, it would last another 10 or 20 years, getting more and more severe and moralistic in tone, before ending with a wild backlash, a sort of counterrevolution that is manifest in widespread acceptance of drugs and alcohol and an age of excess.

And that is what frightens Ms. Rusche. "It could happen all over again," she said.


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