April 5, 2011
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 email@example.com.