How do farm and ranch people manage—or not manage—alcohol consumption? This column takes a look at alcohol use by people involved in agriculture; next week’s column offers a perspective on whether or not alcohol benefits its users.
In 1991 Lorrin Walker, Don Warren and Jill Greenwalt published an article in Rural Community Mental Health entitled, The Good Life on the Ranch, or Myths and Misconceptions, or the Drunk Cowboy Syndrome, which may be as true today as when it was written. The “Drunk Cowboy Syndrome” applies to farmers as well as ranchers.
Many hard-working ranchers use alcohol to numb physical pain, the authors suggested. As the workday goes along and they become sore from strenuous physical activities, these ranchers consume alcohol to reduce their sensations of pain, often starting to drink around midday.
Alcohol enables cowboys to keep working. It has created a myth–the authors say–that drinking to deal with pain is acceptable.
As the people who take care of the land and livestock age, they develop more physical pains, such as arthritis and other musculoskeletal issues and they drink alcohol in ever greater amounts until they “just can’t” any longer. They model the use of alcohol as acceptable to their children and grandchildren who work with them, until their bodies can’t tolerate it anymore.
Sometimes ranchers use alcohol to avoid psychological pain as well, spouses say. If they drink enough beer or hard liquor, they don’t have to think about things that bother them, even if only temporarily.
Some farmers and ranchers visit the bar on a daily basis or keep a cooler with alcoholic beverages stashed in their pickup trucks. Drinking alcohol has become part of the culture.
Do people involved in agriculture consume more alcohol than persons not engaged in agricultural occupations? Drs. Jim Merchant and Craig Zwerling and other associates at the University of Iowa have been gathering health risk data from residents of a highly agricultural Iowa county not near a major metropolitan area for many years in what has become known as the Keokuk County Rural Health Study (www.kcrhs.org).
While not representative of all the agricultural population, their 2001 report of 1,583 study participants that appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicated binge drinking was equally frequent among farmers, rural non-farmers and townspeople over 25 years of age. Men (24%) were more likely to binge drink than women (9%).
Male farmers over 65 years of age were less than half as likely as younger male farmers to report a history of alcohol abuse. Binge drinking decreased with age for both men and women.
How much alcohol is consumed by rural youths and what effects does it have? The University of Iowa research team also surveyed binge drinking by youths.
Binge drinking was defined as consumption of five or more drinks of beer, wine or liquor on the same occasion. Among 621 youths in the Keokuk County study aged 12-17, 12.8% reported an episode of binge drinking during the previous 30 days.
Boys who reported binge drinking were 2.2 times more likely to experience an injury of some kind than boys who did not report binge drinking. Girls who reported binge drinking were 8.1 times more likely to incur an injury than girls who did not report binge drinking. Only 5% of the reported injuries occurred on farms.
The Keokuk County study used health interview survey data gathered during 1994-98. More recent adolescent alcohol use information gathered on a national sample in 2009 was reported in 2012 by John Gale and his colleagues at the Maine Rural Health Research Center.
Youths aged 12-13 who lived in rural areas were more likely (10.4%) than urban youths (9.1%) to report binge drinking. As they aged, youthful rural binge drinkers were also more likely to report driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol than their urban counterparts.
Rural youths, their families and peers, were less likely to disapprove of youth drinking than urban residents. The survey did not separate youths who lived on farms and ranches from other rural residents.
It is well known that inebriation increases the risk of injuries and death, while engaged in farming activities, according to a 2010 article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, coauthored by Dr. Lorann Stallones, with others at Colorado State University and the Qiqihar Medical University in China.
Inebriation reduces reaction time, accuracy of motor movements, impulse control, rational thinking, and increases risk-taking. It diminishes the perception of pain and emotional turmoil but simultaneously increases many other negative health consequences.
We have to ask ourselves: “Are drunk cowboys and farmers safe and competent?” Most available evidence says “No.”
Farm and ranch people, as well as others, will continue to consume alcohol. Next week we will look at whether or not managed alcohol consumption can have any benefits.
Stay tuned but don’t assume it is okay to drink a lot of alcohol. Need help? Call 800-521-7128 or 866-416-2862.
Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan Iowa psychologist and farmer. Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at the website www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.