Are You Drinking Too Much? Depends on Whether You Ask the CDC, NIAAA, or Smashed.

Health and medicine explained.
Oct. 12 2012 12:44 PM

How Much Drinking Is Too Much Drinking?

Smashed is the best movie yet about our relationship with alcohol. 

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Esquire describes Smashed as a “hipster Days of Wine and Roses,” a hammy 1962 film about another white, middle-class, hard-drinking couple. But that’s not right. Days of Wine and Roses covers the arc of a relationship that is grim from the beginning. (Jack Lemmon downs a pint of bourbon, by himself, on their first date. That’s a warning sign, ladies.) Smashed has no equivalent of Lemmon thrashing around in a sanatorium, straightjacketed and screaming with delirium tremens. The depiction of his addiction is so hideous that even many hardened drinkers can easily distance themselves from it: I’d never wind up like that. The other, far more relatable, pole can be seen in films from The Thin Man—“Would you bring me five more Martinis?”—to Animal House, which depict the sociable, fun side of alcohol with few, if any, hints of its dangers. Who hasn’t gotten drunk and silly with their friends?

“That line between moderate drinking and problematic drinking is not something that is cut and dry; it evolves for people,” says historian Lori Rotskoff, author of Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America. “Carving out that middle ground is something that gets negotiated culturally, and film presents a really good opportunity [for measuring] these anxieties.”

Smashed does a better job than any film I’ve seen of addressing our culture’s schizophrenic relationship with drinking. It covers a year or so in the life of the couple (at a trim 85 minutes, it’s a little too short) and the increasing obviousness of their problem. Unlike Days of Wine and Roses—which can feel like a two-hour PSA with unusually fine acting—Smashed offers an understandable explanation for the couple’s dangerous drinking. The film gives fair play to booze: Kate and Charlie imbibe because they have a lot of fun while doing it. So they do it all the time. Lacking any control mechanisms, or dialogue about their habits, they seem to think they can live like Bluto. They are hazily unaware of the warning signs.

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But there are a lot of them. Within the first 20 minutes of the movie, Kate, who drinks more desperately than her husband, exhibits five of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) eleven “symptoms of an alcohol use disorder.” (Their ReThinking Drinking website provides an interactive tool for gauging levels of alcohol abuse, and its rationing standards are a bit laxer than those of the CDC.) She pisses the bed, drinks in the morning, keeps a flask in her car, vomits in class from a hangover, drives drunk, smokes crack while hammered, and awakes twice in unfamiliar locales.

Definitions of alcoholism and alcohol abuse shift over time, as Rotskoff argues, but the behaviors named above should send anyone’s klaxons blaring. The NIAAA’s list of warning signs is useful; any one of them should be an indicator for moderation at the least. Smashed depicts a relationship to alcohol that is clearly having deleterious effects on every aspect of Kate’s life.

The principal cultural value of Smashed is that it tacks a course apart from the two usual depictions of drinking: hilariously screwed-up or dead drunk in a ditch. Instead, it shows us a woman who is slipping from one to the other, and a man who may not be drinking to the same extent but is still letting his perpetual buzz erode his ability to live well.

A recent NIAAA study, covering 43,000 American adults, suggests that most people who like getting drunk on the weekends are unlikely to succumb to the kind of alcohol dependence exhibited by Kate. “Many heavy drinkers do not have alcohol dependence. For example, even in people who have 5 or more drinks a day (the equivalent of a bottle of wine) the rate of developing dependence is less than 7 percent per year,” the study’s summary reads.

But, as Kate’s arc demonstrates, many people do become dependent, and of those some suffer from what NIAAA calls “recurrent or chronic” abuse. And while Charlie may be a “time-limited” abuser (the exact details of his drinking are unclear, as Kate is really the film’s focus), even his less dramatic intake costs him a lot. Endangering your relationship with the one you love, not to mention the woman herself, seems like a pretty solid metric for the slide from recreational to problematic.  

Smashed doesn’t parse out these details and it still presents Alcoholics Anonymous as the best way to get sober, just like Days of Wine and Roses did (although the higher power business is not mentioned). But it still far more relatable than its predecessor or, say, Leaving Las Vegas, and that’s important: The film can provide an impetus for important conversations about drinking in our social lives and in our society. Drinking is often fun, as I discovered on those raids of my parent’s liquor cabinet, but Smashed is an important corrective to the temptation to see it as an uncomplicated pleasure. Alcohol can have its place in life, but there are plenty of places it doesn’t belong. And your car, the shower, and your relationship are among them.

Jake Blumgart is a reporter and researcher based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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