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Does Culture Influence Alcoholism and Addiction Rates?

You have likely heard the phrase, “Alcoholism runs in families.” When you find out someone is an alcoholic or a drug addict, usually, the first people you look at are their parents. What are their parents like? Did their parents influence their finding a solution in drugs and alcohol? On many occasions, you find the children of parents who are addicts or alcoholics often become addicts and alcoholics themselves. Still, sometimes you will see children with substance-dependent parents who break the mold. They use their parents’ addictions as inspiration to not become like them. They never try drugs or alcohol because they saw the impact these substances had on their lives. These individuals do a complete 180 and shatter the notion that all children with alcoholic or addict parents become alcoholics and addicts. Then there are those whose parents never had more than a sip of wine during Communion. Alcohol never crossed the threshold of the home and even NyQuil was a commodity. Still, you see people with parents who become addicts and alcoholics. When they finally leave the home they grew up in, they swing the opposite direction and quickly develop a substance abuse problem. Why do some people become dependent upon drugs and alcohol while others do not? Is there one specific reason some become addicts and alcoholics? Can researchers pin addiction down to an exact moment in time?

What Causes Someone to Become a Drug Addict or Alcoholic?

Current research indicates that a mix of biological and environmental factors influence alcoholism and addiction. Both a person’s genetic makeup and the environment they grew up in play a role. However, a single determining factor on who becomes an alcoholic or a drug addict and who doesn’t exist. So far, researchers have not been able to pinpoint an exact reason some people find themselves addicted to drugs and alcohol. A number of risk factors influence the chances of someone developing a substance abuse problem. But researchers cannot point specifically to one single cause. Risk factors for the development of alcohol and drug addiction include:

  • Displaying aggressive behavior during childhood
  • Difficulties with socialization
  • Minimal parental supervision
  • Early experimentation with drugs and alcohol
  • Poverty in the community

The two largest environmental factors for the development of substance abuse are a child’s home and family as well as their peers and school. As these occupy the majority of a child’s time, they obviously have the largest impact. When a person grows up with substance abuse in the home, it becomes normal for them. Often these individuals turn to drugs themselves in order to cope with chaotic home life. If drugs are widely available at school or popular within their friend group, children and adolescents are more likely to experiment. During their teenage years, the desire to fit in is overwhelming. If their friends are using drugs or alcohol they often will use them in order to fit in with the group. Since environmental factors have a large role in the development of substance dependence issues, what factors in particular? Does the culture that a child grows up in impact their chances of turning to drugs and alcohol?

The Cultural Impact on Alcoholism and Addiction Rates

When considering the cultural influence on the development of alcoholism and addiction, it is important to define what culture means. “It [culture] is a system of patterns of belief and behavior that shape the worldview of the member of society,” says researcher Dwight Heath. The biggest distinguishing factor that defines culture is the fact that it is learned. Culture is not a biological factor; it is anything learned after birth. This means an area someone grew up in, the religion they were a part of, their participation in various groups, et cetera. Four impactful cultural factors to consider are:

  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Social participation

Ethnicity and Substance Abuse: How Does Ethnicity Relate to Addiction and Alcoholism?

Oftentimes, ethnicity is confused with race. Race refers to the biological makeup of an individual while ethnicity is the learned factors inherited after a child is born. On the other hand, ethnicity refers to traits such as:

  • Shared language
  • Shared culture
  • Shared tradition
  • Nationality
  • Religious affiliation

Individuals who are a part of a community of color tend to experience typically higher rates of substance abuse. Various factors influence this statistic, including:

  • Limited educational opportunities
  • Restricted access to healthcare
  • Restriction to poorer communities

When particular ethnicities have restricted access to healthcare, they will not receive the proper treatment for illnesses. Due to having no way to treat health problems, some may turn to substances such as alcohol, marijuana, illegally-obtained painkillers to solve their problems. Especially when using painkillers, the potential for addiction rises. If an individual finds the substances are helpful in relieving symptoms, they may never seek medical treatment, or alcohol abuse treatment and instead rely solely on the drugs. This only increases the problem, though, because they now have a substance abuse problem on top of their original medical issue.

Impact of Education on the Chances of Developing Substance Abuse

Limited opportunity to receive education, both from an academic as well as an anti-drug perspective, leads to higher rates of substance abuse. A study took place in Copenhagen in 2004 to assess the relationship between education level and substance abuse or dependence. In this study, researchers found those who finished only lower levels of education experienced higher rates of smoking and drinking. Though the study took place outside the United States, one can only assume the pattern is reflected here as well. Limited education leads to limited employment opportunities, resulting in some turning to drugs and alcohol instead. Additionally, the education level of an individual’s parents can affect the likelihood of someone developing a substance abuse problem. Though it was an old survey, in 1986 a group of high school seniors were asked about their substance use. Drug use among high school students dropped between 1981 and 1986 but researchers noticed something interesting. The most significant drop in substance abuse was in students with parents who had some level of graduate education. Use among these students dropped from 36.7 percent to 23.7 percent, a whole 13 percentage points. Of students whose parents had not completed high school, use dropped only 2.7 percentage points, from 25.4 percent to 22.7 percent. When an individual has educated parents, they have better access to resources. Their parents likely hold more advanced employment positions which leads to a higher rate of pay. This grants greater availability of healthcare and better living arrangements. If there is little stress within the home, they are less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol in order to cope. Therefore, having a higher level of education can lead to a lesser likelihood to use drugs and alcohol. Additionally, if a parent has a better education, leading to a better job, they do not experience as much work-related stress as those with limited financial means. Money problems tend to be an incredible stressor in the lives of many. Some turn to alcohol and other drugs to help numb themselves to the situation they are in. When children see these patterns of behavior, they are more likely to adopt them into their own lives and carry them into adulthood.

The Influence of Gang Participation on Addiction and Alcoholism

Certain social involvements, such as membership in a gang, lead to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. The prevalence of gangs was high in 1996 with an estimated number of 30,800 gangs nationwide. This number dropped to around 20,100 gangs in 2003. However, since then the number has steadily increased back up to 30,700, with an estimation of over 850,000 individual gang members. Street gangs are usually the primary distributors of illicit drugs and other substances. They assist in drug smuggling and getting illegal substances into the United States for distribution. Selling drugs is often the primary source of income for many gangs nationwide. Due to their source of income, the use of drugs is commonly prevalent within gangs. Alcohol and marijuana are the most common, while crack, cocaine, PCP, and methamphetamines are used as well. The life of a gang member is stressful and terrifying with the events and activities that take place every day. Using drugs and alcohol helps them to numb themselves to the insanity and atrocity of gang life. Gangs are most prevalent in large cities and suburban communities, followed by smaller cities and rural counties. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit contain the highest concentrations of gangs in the nation. The drug trade from gangs also contributes to high amounts of violence due to control over turf areas. Due to limited concern for education once involved in gang life, the environmental impact of lower education levels takes hold as well. Combining involvement with gang life as well as a lower priority placed on education, substance abuse becomes an increasing problem for children and adolescents involved in gangs.

Addiction and Alcoholism Within Religious Communities

Oftentimes, people see religion as an antidote to substance abuse. The morals instilled in church help to counteract the turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with life. Rather than relying on drugs and alcohol to get through difficult situations, most religious people turn to their understanding of God for guidance during trying times. The community established in the church helps individuals get through their lives as well, through leaning on other members of their church community. Religion provides an incredible opportunity for individuals looking to stay away from drugs and alcohol. However, religion is not a solution to substance abuse. On the contrary, there is a common stereotype of the “Pastor’s Kid.” These children and adolescents are usually goody-two-shoes who feel they must live up to the example their pastor parent sets. They grow up with an immense amount of pressure to perform, to continue the legacy their parents brought them into. Some pastor’s kids find the pressure to be too great. Once they are out of the house, the pendulum swings to the opposite side and they find themselves involved in the very antithesis of what is preached in church. Addiction, alcoholism, and other frowned-upon practices help them to cope with the way they were raised. Additionally, children who come from incredibly religious families may have a similar experience. Though they lack the pressure placed upon the pastor’s kids, they still feel the need to live up to their parents’ Godly expectations. Some turn to alcohol and drugs in either a fit of rebellion or a need to find out what they were missing. Though religion itself may not contribute to substance abuse, the stress people feel when they need to “live up to” a certain standard might have an impact. Children who grow up in a religious environment and find there are other ways to live experience a lot of stress. Especially children who are outside of societal and religious norms, such as LGBT+ kids. Drinking and using drugs helps these kids to escape from the feeling they need to live up to any particular religious ideal. Substances relieve the stress of putting on a show, of pretending to be something they are not. They may become reliant upon these substances and their use may evolve into substance abuse down the line. Admitting a substance abuse problem can be taboo within the church, too, leading to falling further into the jaws of addiction or alcoholism.

Does Culture Truly Determine Whether or Not Someone Will Become an Alcoholic or Addict?

As mentioned earlier, the chances of someone developing a substance abuse problem depend both on biological and environmental factors. Addiction and alcoholism do not discriminate. Anyone can struggle with substance abuse, from lawyers and doctors to homeless individuals and those in gangs. However, just because anyone can become an addict or alcoholic does not mean some are not more predisposed to the possibility. These cultural factors are considered an environmental influence. When people have limited access to resources such as education and healthcare, they are more likely to abuse substances. Some could say that addiction does discriminate; some populations are more likely to struggle with substance abuse within their communities. Again, there is no single determining factor for whether or not someone will become an alcoholic or addict. Some people exposed to certain cultural influences rise above their circumstances and never turn to substances as a solution. However, this does not negate the impact of cultural influences on the likelihood of developing substance abuse.


“Does educational level influence the effects of smoking, alcohol, physical activity, and obesity on mortality?” “Rich vs. Poor: Drug Patterns are Diverging” The New York Times “Measuring the Extent of Gang Problems” National Gang Center “Drugs and Gangs Fast Facts” National Drug Intelligence Center