Risky Business

The mixed messages of alcohol

The cover this month extols the pleasures of a well-made cocktail. In fact the genesis of this whole idea was writer Marc Eisen’s pitch for an article on the lengths to which he will go to have a properly made drink. It’s a good story, well written with just the right blend of humor, serious attention to detail and a dash of self-deprecation that we think many of you will find, let’s say, familiar.

We also know this particular cover—or topic—will not appeal to everybody, and will be distasteful to some. To some degree this is a regular conundrum. If we put a big, juicy burger on the cover we alienate non-meat eaters, top ten neighborhoods frustrates number eleven, fashion risks losing men, and a cute dog offends cat lovers. But this is a little different. Our society has a drinking problem, and Madison provides ample evidence. Too ample. So we don’t put an alluring alcoholic beverage on the cover without trepidation, nor without considerable thought. What we hope is the image, and the related content on the pages to follow, convey the sense of appropriate use that is the spirit of the concept.

But I’ll go a step further—I hope it’s part of finding an answer to our problem. I say “part” because the answer is as complicated as the problem. We’re talking about a cultural shift and those changes take a long time. It certainly requires education. At long last there is a lot being done on that level here in Dane County. Thanks to a large degree to County Executive Kathleen Falk’s heartfelt and thoughtful passion for the issue there are significant improvements in the ways alcohol abuse is being addressed. The Dane County Coalition to Reduce Alcohol Abuse has launched workgroups on leadership/guidance, legislation/policy, messaging and Downtown Alcohol Policy and all are meeting regularly. Partnerships are being developed with schools, law enforcement, health care providers, neighborhood groups, local government and others and with a state grant the Coalition is actively focusing on binge drinking downtown and on the three local college campuses.

On the law enforcement end, more drunk drivers are being arrested by targeted alcohol patrols while the number of fatal crashes in which alcohol was a factor is down in Dane County. Good stuff. But none really addresses another part of this problem, which is the
glorification of alcohol, its effects and the power that has in today’s society. Too much advertising, music and entertainment, and too many images in our popular culture promote excessive use. And we who are in that business have a responsibility to both avoid those images of irresponsible drinking as well as replace them with equally suggestive, positive, reinforcing depictions of responsible drinking. Which, if you find these to be mixed messages—our cover and this column—means we’ve opened ourselves up to some criticism.

Let me be clear. Our stories this month are about enjoying an occasional drink—or in my case a glass of wine. Our cover is about sipping one fancy cocktail. (I personally can’t imagine drinking more than one of those things without a visit to the dentist on the calendar. But that’s just me.) April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and we’ve got an alcoholic beverage on our cover. If our emphasis is taken as an awareness of the need to change our cultural view of alcohol, to promote its responsible and moderate use and as support of the need to end the abuse of alcohol in our community, than I’m OK with that.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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