Genes and Culture that Make You Drink (Alcohol)

In a recent study, a research group led by UT Professor Jaanus Harro came to a stunning conclusion. They researched how early girls with a certain gene variant tried their first booze. The researchers discovered a dividing line between the girls born in 1982-83 versus those born in 1988-89: the younger girls started drinking alcohol three years earlier than the older ones.

Overall, the study was in line with the generally known fact that boys try alcohol earlier than girls and that in many European countries the first encounter with alcohol occurs at an increasingly earlier age. In this research, however, the younger girls with the high risk genotype tried alcohol even before the boys of their age, whereas girls just six years older who shared the same genotype were the last ones to try booze in their age group.

Professor Jaanus Harro commented that to his knowledge their research group was the first in psychiatry and behavioural sciences to show that the effect of a gene variant influencing brain activity (in this case a serotonin transporter gene) can depend on the birth cohort. This study demonstrates how, given the same genetic predisposition, the environment effectively enters the equation.

So where does the dividing line lie? Professor Harro refers to the 1990s: Estonia became independent in 1991 and freedom in everything ruled the country. Alcohol became more readily available and drinking evolved into a social norm.

In the following decades, Estonia moved in the direction of restricting alcohol advertising and sales. A sudden step in the opposite direction was a national law allowing the consumption of alcohol in public places that came into effect as of July 1, 2014. In the next few months, several municipalities including Tallinn overrode this law via local regulations that ban public drinking.

Students at Pirogov

Pirogov park in Tartu has traditionally enjoyed a special status: public drinking is allowed here. Photo by Andres Tennus.

A bit more needs to be said about the environment. Professor Jaanus Harro and Aimar Ventsel, Senior Researcher at the UT Department of Ethnology, both agree that the Estonian culture of alcohol consumption is a dangerous one and needs more legal regulation because of a simple behavioral pattern: people tend to do what is easy for them to do.

Aimar Ventsel elaborates on the Nordic and southern culture types regarding alcohol consumption:

Alcohol is a very important thing. I became convinced by this recently both as a researcher and as a person. The ways and frequency of alcohol consumption, what and whether something is consumed at all, are important constituents of our identity.

For instance, a very big aspect of a modern person’s identity is whether one consumes alcohol or not. If not, everything is clear. If yes, then different options come into play: a bit, a lot, moderately, wine, beer, spirit, window washing fluid, etc.

The way and the ritual of alcohol consumption oftentimes define interpersonal relationships. Besides that, somewhere also are the society and the state that have assumed the right to direct the process and make prescriptions. And, as life has shown, Estonia cannot skip the game.

The question is what cultural space we belong to in light of alcohol as a symbol. For instance, in Kazakhstan alcohol is available round-the-clock. However, drinking is mostly a solitary activity there, as Islamic Kazakhs honour traditions and their drinking resembles child’s play. They can sit hours with a shot of vodka, consuming it drop by drop.

I also remember my first visit to a Parisian café. The café was located near a school. During a break, a group of students came in, ordered a bottle of wine and consumed it while chatting to each other.

France belongs to the so-called southern cultural space as regards alcohol consumption, whereas we tend to be a part of the Nordic cultural space. The difference lies in the fact that in the first type, alcohol is consumed on an ongoing basis but people don’t get drunk, whereas in the second type getting drunk is the main reason for drinking.

Alcohol consumption is an encounter between a person and alcohol. This does not automatically mean that the person gets drunk. For instance, Kazakhs and the French normally don’t. Russians and Estonians, however, can. This cultural moment leads to a different understanding of the social pressure and the state’s role.

Estonians like to consider themselves Scandinavians, and Scandinavia has very strict alcohol legislation!

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