THE BLOG

Moral Versus Health Scales: Where Do Sex, Smoking, and Drinking Fall?

02/24/2011 02:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was a preteen, I had a moral scale in my mind which went, from bad to worse -- cursing, smoking, drinking.

When I was buying a house once, my real estate agent -- a nervous, recently-divorced woman -- occasionally huffed a cigarette. When I looked at her, she said to me -- "Well, I smoke, but I don't have sex or drink."

I was reminded of these moral scales recently by the producer of "Two and a Half Men," Chuck Lorre, writing about his wayward star Charlie Sheen: "I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I don't have crazy, reckless sex with strangers. If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I'm gonna be really pissed."

The reason this strikes me is because, last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes these statements:

Alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation. Strong evidence from observational studies has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption also is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality among middle-aged and older adults and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age.

Of course, these Guidelines mean by moderate drinking one-two drinks daily - the health benefits don't apply if you skip a week and multiply your drinks by seven on a Saturday. Rather, the reverse is probably true. So Charlie may not be a model of healthy behavior.

But, if you believe the USDA's Guidelines, Mr. Lorre is actually reducing his life expectancy by the behavior he seemingly believes should make him live longer.

That would be ironic, wouldn't it?

Perhaps, on the other hand, you don't believe the Guidelines. Recently, Anonymous wrote in at my Psychology Today blog: "Sounds like the alcohol beverage companies had some influence on this data. All the nutrients that are good in these substances come from the fruits contained in them. Try grape juice minus the poison (alcohol)."

The United States has had a long, see-saw moral and public health battle over alcohol -- one that is represented in the views of Anonymous and the Guidelines. Do you recall Prohibition and, before it, Temperance? In my apartment, I have framed eight panels comprising George Cruikshank's "The Bottle," which was published in 1843 as a part of the collection, Temperance Tales. The first panel says, "James Latimer brings the bottle out for the first time; he induces his wife to take a drop." The eighth says, "It has brought the son and daughter to vice and to the street, and has left the father a hopeless maniac" (James murdered his wife in an earlier panel).

So, take your choice.