Alcohol Culture


From 2006 to 2010, an estimated 88,000 died per year due to excessive alcohol use, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The United States Department of Transportation’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis reported that more than 31% of total driving fatalities were related to alcohol-impaired driving. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), excessive drinking increases one’s risks for injuries and death. Alcohol accounts for 60% of fatal burn injuries, homicides and drownings; 50% of sexual assaults and severe trauma and injuries; and 40% of fatal vehicular crashes, suicides and falls.

Despite these alarming statistics, binge drinking is expected to rise, not just in the United States but around the world (Manthey, Shield, Rylett, Hasan, Probst & Rehm, 2019).

What’s behind the binge drinking culture in America?

Hollywood alone is not to blame for today’s normalized binge drinking culture. Women are catching up to men with regard to their drinking behaviors, thanks to social media feeds that depict women waiting eagerly for their next drink to get through the day. Drinking in excess has not only become acceptable, but pop culture has popularized the alcohol culture by making it look fun and funny while minimizing the dangers of alcohol abuse. Strategic alcohol marketing across various media such as movies, television, social media and other forms of entertainment influence social norms, encouraging positive beliefs about alcohol and promoting environments where alcohol use is glamorized (Sudhinaraset, Wigglesworth & Takeuchi, 2016).

How does American society normalize alcohol use and binge drinking?

Alcohol is portrayed in certain ways to appeal to specific demographic groups. Because binge drinking is largely normalized in social contexts, our reasons for drinking have much to do with how we want to be perceived and how we want to conduct ourselves around others.

Alcohol portrayal on television
Television is one of the major influencing factors for adolescents, more so than movies. About 40% of television episodes portray alcohol use as an overall positive experience than a negative one (10%) (National Research Council, 2004). Alcohol consumption for youth has been associated with the appearance of maturity, and regular television characters who drink tend to be attractive and glamorous. Drinking is also associated with desirable outcomes such as gaining popularity among peers.

Alcohol portrayal in movies
A study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism showed that viewers, especially young adults, were more likely to imitate their favorite characters in a movie if these actors were seen sipping alcohol on screen. Researchers studied the behavior of 79 young adults ages 18 to 25 watching What Happens in Vegas; each participant was exposed to 25 alcohol cues. Researchers observed the differences between male and female imitation of the cues and whether the timing of the actors’ sipping had any immediate effect on viewers’ behaviors during the movie. Results of the study showed that viewers were more likely to sip when they saw a cue, and men were more likely to respond and imitate (Koordeman, Kuntsche, Anschutz, van Baaren & Engels, 2011).

Alcohol portrayal on social media
A 2019 survey reveals that on average, people spend about two and a half hours on social media per day. Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are among the most popular social media platforms where college students and young adults post about their binge drinking and reckless behaviors, and every time someone sees alcohol-related content posted on social media, it increases the likelihood that they will think about alcohol. Saleem Alhabash, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, conducted a study involving over 400 participants. The objective was to see if they were more likely to drink after being exposed to Facebook ads about alcohol. Alhabash and his colleagues found that the more participants engaged in a post – whether by liking, sharing or commenting – the more likely they were to consume alcohol.

Alcohol is usually depicted in a positive light as pictures of people holding drinks are posted, shared and tagged (Hendriks, Van den Putte, Gebhardt & Moreno, 2018). It’s more common for Facebook users to be tagged in photos containing alcohol content than for users to post the photos themselves, and alcoholrelated photos were more likely to receive “likes” if people were visible in the pictures (Hendriks et al., 2018).

Alcohol portrayal in music
Research suggests that alcohol representation in music have a profound impact on listeners’ behaviors and attitudes as lyrics have become more explicit about substance abuse, sex and violence. In a study published in the Journal of Health Communication, researchers analyzed the top 20 Billboard songs from 2009 to 2013 in various genres to see how much lyrical content made references to alcohol, drugs, sex, intoxication, binging, addiction, partying and disregard for consequences; the R&B/hip hop genre contained the most explicit content about sexual behaviors and alcohol (Holody, Anderson, Craig & Flynn, 2016). Alcohol and drugs were largely associated with positive emotions, and sex was often mentioned in the context of casual relationships (Holody et al., 2016).

What kind of cultural barriers discourage people from saying “no” to alcohol?

Saying “no” to alcohol is not easy for those who may want to abstain from alcohol use. Alcohol has played important cultural and social roles in cultures around the world for centuries, and even though research institutions and governmental agencies are publishing alarming data to warn societies about the dangers of alcohol use, cultural pressures persist and stigmatize those who try to refrain from drinking.

A study identified three cultural barriers to anti-consumption choices, based on findings from 13 interviews with participants who willingly engaged in abstinence from alcohol use for one month. The study was conducted by FebFast, a nonprofit organization, as part of their fundraising efforts to support alcohol-risk prevention initiatives. Researchers found that when presented the opportunity to have a drink, people are reluctant to say “no” because (1) alcohol is a symbolic practice to engage in with others at social events (e.g., sharing the moment with friends and family when celebrating a birthday or wedding); (2) they feel the need to conform to cultural norms of reciprocity and expectations (e.g., even though people know you don’t drink, they still expect you to make this one-time exception because it’s someone’s wedding); and (3) it’s uncomfortable to remain abstinent when there is cultural pressure, even from acquaintances you barely know (Cherrier & Gurrieri, 2013).

In addition to maintaining appearances and sustaining desired relationships centered around alcohol, climbing the career ladder is another major motivation for people to conform with the alcohol culture. A New York Times article discusses the challenges that working professionals face, especially individuals in recovery, when they are trying to bring in new clients for business. Drinking is more than just a social symbol; it’s part of the job, and it’s expected in the corporate culture. Those who refuse to drink are viewed “with the suspicion that you can’t play the game.”


1 Cherrier, H. & Gurrieri, L. (2013). Anti-consumption choices performed in a drinking culture: normative struggles and repairs. Journal of Macromarketing, 33(3):232-244.

2 Hendriks, H., Van den Putte, B., Gebhardt, W. A., & Moreno, M. A. (2018). Social Drinking on Social Media: Content Analysis of the Social Aspects of Alcohol-Related Posts on Facebook and Instagram. Journal of medical Internet research, 20(6), e226. doi:10.2196/jmir.9355

3 Holody K, Anderson C, Craig C & Flynn M. (2016). “Drunk in Love”: The portrayal of risk behavior in music lyrics. Journal of health communication, 21(10):1098-106. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2016.1222032. Epub 2016 Sep 26.

4 Koordeman R, Kuntsche E, Anschutz DJ, van Baaren RB & Engels RC. (2011). Do we act upon what we see? Direct effects of alcohol cues in movies on young adults’ alcohol drinking. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 46(4):393-398. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agr028. Epub 2011 Apr 14.

5 Manthey J, Shield KD, Rylett M, Hasan OS, Probst C, Rehm JR. (2019). Global alcohol exposure between 1990 and 2017 and forecasts until 2030: a modelling study. The Lancet, 6736(18)32744-2

6 National Center for Statistics and Analysis. 2014 Crash Data Key Findings (Traffic Safety Facts Crash Stats. Report No. DOT HS 812 219). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2015. Available at:

7 Sudhinaraset, M., Wigglesworth, C., & Takeuchi, D. T. (2016). Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use: Influences in a Social-Ecological Framework. Alcohol research : current reviews, 38(1), 35–45.

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