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Health & Wellness

How Ethnicity Shapes Drinking Habits

Study looks at where, when, and how much


Photo by Alejandro Mejía Greene

Most Italians start drinking wine—considered part of a meal—as young children, Haitian teenagers drink traditional rum punch, and up until February, Russians classified beer as foodstuff, not alcohol.

Medical anthropologists like Lee Strunin, a School of Public Health professor of community health sciences, believe that cultural customs concerning alcohol can help steer a person toward or away from destructive drinking habits later in life. Strunin hopes to learn enough about those customs to devise better ways to keep people out of trouble. And because Mexicans are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the United States, she’s continuing research in Mexico that she’s already done among Haitians in Boston and Italians.

Strunin was recently awarded a four-year, $1.36 million grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study alcohol use among young people in Mexico. She’ll work with Carlos Avila-Hernandes, a professor at the University of Connecticut, and Hector Fernandez-Varela and Alejandro and Rosa Diaz-Martinez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“We want to ask questions to learn their stories, like, who first introduced you to alcohol?” says Strunin, who is also deputy director of the SPH Partners in Health and Housing Prevention Research Center, funded by the Centers for Disease Control.

“In Italy, people overwhelmingly told us their grandfathers would allow sips of wine at family meals,” she says “But alcohol was not the focus of the meal—it was a part of it.” In the Italian study, she found out that if people were allowed to have alcohol with meals when they were growing up, they were more likely to drink less or not drink to get drunk.

Projections show that by 2015, Hispanics will constitute more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, and half of them will hail from Mexico. They also show that Hispanic youth in the United States are more likely to drink at an earlier age than non-Hispanic white or black teenagers. Yet curiously, Mexican Americans who started drinking in Mexico were less likely to develop harmful drinking habits than those who started drinking here, according to the NIAAA 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.

In March, Strunin began the first part of the research, and headed to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico City to coordinate qualitative interviews with 120 students—30 nondrinkers, 30 occasional drinkers, 30 regular drinkers, and 30 heavy drinkers. Their answers will help add questions to a wellness survey all incoming freshmen are required to take. Eventually, Strunin will put her research to work for students at UNAM as a building block of counseling on destructive drinking habits.

Strunin’s Mexico study is part of a series of studies—one involving African American youth in Boston, as well as the Haitian and Italian groups—that she believes may shed light on how education and prevention can be tailored in the United States for different ethnic and racial groups.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.


5 Comments on How Ethnicity Shapes Drinking Habits

  • Anonymous on 04.05.2011 at 6:24 am

    Assumed homogeneity with a small sample – 120 Mexican kids? Come on. There more than 10,000 times that many Mexicans in Los Ageles alone, and that’s not even counting the rest if the US or Mexico. But since 120 kids filled out a form, we now know that people from Mexico drink at a younger age than from the US? Clearly! And Mexican Americans who start at the same age in the united states are more likely to be drunks? Obviously! … Was that based on the same kids? … This is ridiculous, BU today!

    Someone is really spending over $1M to label different ethinities as drunks. What is this, 1945 Virginia? Studies also say that most people in jail are black and relatively few are Asian, but does that make the nerdy black guy in your math class dangerous, or the Asian gangster safer? No! It just paints the wrong picture about a lot of people in those groups. … Want a less controversial example? Try, “nearly every American surveryed in sample of over 300 claimed to love spinach flavored ice cream.” Conclusion: Americans love spinach flavored ice cream. … Um, no. You just asked a bunch of people who happened to say yes.

  • Anonymous on 04.05.2011 at 11:18 am

    The causality seems to be linked more to drinking age than ethnicity. Lower drinking age = more responsible drinking.

  • Anonymous on 04.05.2011 at 1:49 pm

    It is such an archaic and arbitrary law that the US continues to uphold to be 21+ to drink. I mean you can get married, smoke cigarettes, and die for your country, yet you cannot drink a beer.

    Completely arbitrary and utterly stupid law.

  • Anonymous on 04.20.2011 at 1:47 pm

    120 is a fine sample size. Please learn some statistics

  • Shannon on 06.05.2017 at 7:41 pm

    Ignorance can come from educated people too. That is directed to the commentors…by the way. I have Europeans and Mexican in my blood, and I absolutely believe that alcohol is part of many cultures. Your not an alcoholic if you have an appreciation for alcohol.

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