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Jane Ahlin, Published January 18 2014

Ahlin: Stats say we drink a lot, but we’re a nice bunch of drunks

Fargo: drunkest city in America.

And we thought being identified with a wood chipper was a dubious distinction.

Forget all those namby-pamby awards for having excellent schools and low crime rates, strong economic growth and good wages. Citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics on binge drinking and high drinking rates, ABC News reported that per capita, Fargo residents drink more than residents of any other city in the whole U.S.A.

We’re No. 1 (hey!).

Guess we shouldn’t be surprised that percentage-wise, North Dakota ranks close to last in connecting “physical, mental or societal harm” to drinking. We’re hooked on the notion we are hardworking, responsible, neighborly folks who like to lift a glass or two (or three or four), on Friday nights and Saturday nights … well, sometimes Thursdays and Wednesdays and Tuesdays, too. So what? People get up the next morning and go to work. Besides, North Dakota has the highest percentage of churchgoing population in the country and more churches per capita than any other state. Looking at the total picture, are we really so bad?

Statistics suggest we are. In fact, the “so what” seems to mark us as a population in denial, and it occurs to me that my attitude is in line with the majority. Binge drinking makes no sense to me, but otherwise, I understand the inclination to ignore the dark side and to view drinking as benign pleasure. When I think of drinking, what comes to mind is hard lemonade after mowing the lawn, gin and tonics with lake friends when we convene our lawn chair “Gin and Philosophy” society, wine with nice dinners and martinis on Christmas Eve.

Maybe my comfort with drinking comes from my parents, who enjoyed having a drink but also passed on to us kids the great gift of bad digestive systems. Denial about the downside of alcohol is easy when a person feels sick before feeling drunk.

If that sounds flip, it’s not meant to be. Like almost everybody I know, I had the proverbial uncle who ruined his life with alcohol. Long before the strong genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse was recognized, my mother was irrational with worry when one of my brothers worked as a bartender. She couldn’t get the thought out of her mind that he might slip into addiction the way her brother had. (He didn’t.)

Then there are the children of our friends. One couple I’ll call “Letitia and Herbert,” who both had alcoholic parents, were not surprised when their son became addicted. As Letitia said, “With our gene pool, he was a sitting duck.”

Still, understanding the role genetics play does not explain our ambivalent attitude toward alcohol abuse and the price it extracts from individuals and their families – for that matter, from society in general. It’s a copout for us to shrug our shoulders as if the problems have no answers, particularly when the 2012 North Dakota Epidemiological Profile concerning alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs makes clear that our children and/or grandchildren “are following the example of the state’s adults who use and abuse alcohol at (high) rates.” It’s serious that young North Dakotans are more likely to binge drink and to drive after drinking than most of their peers across the nation.

We know attitudes can be changed. For instance, pregnant women recognize the threat alcohol poses to fetuses and very few drink. Slowly, we also are changing our tolerance for drunken driving. This past week when people who had employed a “party bus” got out of hand in a convenience store, it occurred to me that at least the drunks in the store fracas weren’t drunks driving cars.

Stronger laws, of course, would help. But the first thing to change is attitude: Are we part of the problem or part of the answer?

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.