Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Easiest Way to Quit: Don't Start

[Originally posted on 29 Sept. 2010]

The placid canal that winds through Paris' Tenth Arrondissement is a social gathering place for the young.  On the warm nights of early September, we saw hundreds of twenty-somethings, or perhaps a bit younger and older, sitting in small groups on the banks, chatting, flirting, and in some cases smoking and drinking. There also we saw uniformed Paris police officers, unarmed and with a relaxed gait, ambling among the groups, chatting, and passing out some literature.  I got a copy.

The main item is a 16-page pamphlet titled "Alcohol" (in French, of course), almost small enough to fit into a pocket, and liberally illustrated with cartoons in a popular style showing characters speaking in Parisian argot. 

The pamphlet is an easy-to-digest, humorously presented short course in the physiology and psychology of alcohol.  It doesn't try scare tactics, but it asks hard questions, and concludes with information on where to get help.  

The pamphlet appears to be the product of a wide collaboration between a number of nonprofit groups together with the French Ministry of Health.

There are several French associations concerned with alcoholism:  Alcohol Assistance (, Croix Bleue (, and Vie Libre  ( are among the best known.  Each of these combines recovery support with prevention work; that is, they provide mutual aid groups for the already addicted and also engage in advocacy and education efforts to prevent addiction in the first place.  

We happened to be present in Berlin on the "Day for Alcohol-Damaged Children."  Unprepared, we missed all of the day's events, but the plastic grocery bag from the local supermarket carried, on one side, a big ad for the cause,  "Alcohol for kids -- not in our bag!"
Berlin is a "sobering" city in many ways.  Museums and many other public buildings still show pockmarks and craters of bullet hits on their facades. 

Plaques and statues honoring resistance heroes murdered by the Nazis dot the city.  A main attraction is the Holocaust Memorial.  It consists of rectangular blocks of dark gray concrete, a bit larger in surface area than a coffin, hundreds of them, of varying heights, with narrow passageways between.  This stark minimalist simplicity goes on for a full city block. Walking among these endlessly repetitive monoliths conveys the monstrosity of the genocide more powerfully than any baroque monument of the 19th century ever could have done.  Berlin knows how to build monuments!

In the United States alone, we lose nearly six million lives to addictive substances every decade.  The holocaust from tobacco alone exceeds the grim toll of the death factories at Auschwitz and Birkenau.  At 50 bodies to a car, it would take a freight train more than 2000 cars long to carry each year's victims of alcohol in the U.S. alone.  The worldwide totals are untallied. 

It's important, of course, to provide support to those whose brains have already been hijacked by the addictive substances.  If caught early enough, treated effectively, and given unfailing support, all can recover.  But providing recovery support alone is like rescuing the survivors of the concentration camps.  The larger social task, one that takes the cooperation of a broad range of nonprofits, for-profits, and government, is prevention.  

As Jane Brody, health editor of the New York Times, pointed out earlier this summer, the most effective way for an individual to escape addiction is not to commence using the substances in the first place.  A life free of addictive substances brings numerous benefits in terms of wellness, prosperity, and longevity -- and it means never having to quit.  

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