Natalie Brown: Many former Latter-day Saints signal their new identities through alcohol. Is that healthy?

Multiple factors are at play, but what does the science really say about drinking?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) State liquor and wine store in Saratoga Springs in 2020. Tribune guest columnist Natalie Brown explores what health research says about drinking alcohol.

I often learn that friends have left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they post pictures of themselves with a wine glass on social media. Openly drinking is shorthand for saying that they no longer are practicing Latter-day Saints, because members are instructed in the faith’s health code, the Word of Wisdom, to abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco.

For former Latter-day Saints, drinking can be a simple way of signaling the start of their new journey, avoiding unwanted conversations and gesturing toward the new identities, tribes and traditions they hope to form. For some, it can be a way of asserting agency and responsibility over their bodies that they felt denied within the church.

I worry, however, when friends and family who leave the church decide to drink, and it can be hard to separate concerns founded on science from those based on religious identity. Latter-day Saint culture focuses on alcohol’s negative effects, such as loss of control and the threat of addiction, rather than its potential for sociality. Moreover, it is hard to distinguish someone’s rejection of our shared faith from a rejection of me. So I decided to review what the scientific community has to say about alcohol in order to parse what is legitimate cause for concern from what is cultural bias.

What I found in my research, frankly, surprised me. Like many, I had heard that moderate alcohol consumption had cardiovascular benefits for some people. Health authorities now consider this research flawed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that studies associating improved health outcomes with moderate drinking did not adequately account for other differences between those who did and did not drink. Healthy people, for example, might be more likely to drink because they are healthy while unhealthy people might be more likely to abstain because they are not.

No ‘safe’ level of drinking

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A state liquor store in West Valley City, shown in 2022. According to the World Health Organization, there is no “safe” level of drinking.

Whether or not moderate alcohol consumption produces some protective effects, any potential health benefits are probably outweighed by the increased risk of cancer. A landmark global study on alcohol use between 1990 and 2016 published in The Lancet showed “some protective effects for ischemic heart disease and diabetes among women,” but these benefits were offset by alcohol’s overall harms, including increased “risk of cancer, injuries, and communicable disease.”

The World Health Organization warned in January 2023 that alcohol “is a toxic, psychoactive, and dependence-producing substance and has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer decades ago — this is the highest risk group, which also includes asbestos, radiation and tobacco.” Alcohol “causes cancer through biological mechanisms as the compound breaks down in the body, which means that any beverage containing alcohol, regardless of its price and quality, poses a risk of developing cancer.”

Significantly, health authorities now find that any level of alcohol might cause harm. According to WHO, there is no “safe” level of drinking. While risk increases with the amount consumed, the “latest available data indicate that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers in the WHO European Region are caused by ‘light’ and ‘moderate’ alcohol consumption.” The CDC concurs: While risk increases with higher consumption, for “some conditions, like some cancers, the risk increases even at very low levels of alcohol consumption (less than 1 drink).”

Still, the absolute risk of alcohol-attributable cancers is small. The American Cancer Society finds that alcohol accounts for 6% of cancers. In a world where nothing is risk-free, some adults might find the increased health risks worth the social benefits and cultural enjoyment they receive. Just as abstinence creates community for Latter-day Saints, social drinking can lead to friendships, business ties and networking opportunities. Many people also enjoy the cultural traditions associated with alcohol.

Sobering stat

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Social drinking can lead to friendships, business ties and networking opportunities.

For some, the risks of casual drinking probably are low enough to shrug off — unless they are not. And that’s the catch: Alcohol can go wrong quickly. While most people presumably intend to drink in moderation, a majority of adults who imbibe “report drinking above moderate levels at least once a month.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 11.3% of U.S. adults have alcohol use disorder (AUD), while 10.5% of children have a parent suffering from AUD. Alcohol is a factor in more than 18% of emergency room visits, and it is “the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States behind tobacco, poor diet and physical inactivity, and illegal drugs.”

The fact that more than 1 in 10 adult Americans have alcohol use disorder is sobering. Still, the statistic also implies that most do not. It may be reasonable to conclude that one’s odds of developing a severe addiction are low, especially if one has no family history of abuse. Nevertheless, one might argue that we have a collective responsibility toward those who are susceptible to alcoholism regardless of whether we ourselves are particularly susceptible.

Latter-day Saint physician Samuel Brown and his late wife, Kate Holbrook, former specialist in women’s history at the Church History Department, have suggested that the Word of Wisdom can be interpreted as a communal health law in which collective willingness to abstain protects community members who would otherwise be susceptible to alcoholism and their families. I find this argument compelling, but some might question if abstinence is the only ethical decision vis-à-vis the community. Perhaps it is enough to cease normalizing social and workplace activities centered on alcohol out of respect for those struggling with addiction or refraining for other reasons, including religious belief, so as not be exclusionary.

Where does this data leave me? It’s complicated. For now, I’ll opt to wear a tank top — with a lot of sunscreen — should I ever feel the need to depart the church. But I’ll strive to respect the courage other people show in manifesting their new identities and assume that they have carefully considered their decisions. While feeling hurt when loved ones make choices that exclude you is natural, I’ll try to remember that their decisions to exit the church are not about rejecting me. And I hope they’ll remember, in turn, that my concerns about alcohol are not always about the church.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not reflect those of the church or her employer. This opinion column is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice. Consult with a health care professional for any questions concerning your health or a medical condition.