Points Interview: David Courtwright

Editor’s note: Points author interviews begin with a set question: Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. David Courtwright said he preferred conversations with bartenders. He talked to his about The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business (Belknap Press, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.40.48Bartender: I hear you have a new book.

Courtwright: Just came out in May. I’ll have the draft IPA.

What’s the book about?

How addictions multiplied throughout human history. Even before civilization people discovered pleasurable drugs and pastimes like alcohol and gambling. They went on finding new ones. They traded, refined, manufactured, and digitized them to the point that we live in an age of addiction. Think about it. When you heard the word “addiction” forty years ago, what came to mind? 

Drugs. Heroin. Junkies. Juicers, only back then we called them alcoholics. 

Google the word now and you’ll find addiction to sugar, video poker, computer games, social media, internet porn, shopping, tanning, you name it.

Could be hype.

Some of it is. And some of it is science. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, promotes food-addiction studies.  

What’s food got to do with drugs?  

Our brains—well, some brains—react to food packed with sugar, salt, and fat like it was booze. People can lose control over eating the way they lose control over drinking. They join groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

They’re like AA? 

Right down to the lingo. And it goes beyond eating.  When I told friends I was writing a history of addictions, they all said, “You’ve got to include kids glued to their phones.” So I did. Behavioral addictions have become social facts.

What’s history got to do with social facts?

Historians explain their origins and how they changed over time. In The Age of Addiction, it’s a long time.

Give me the short version.

The history of addiction is intertwined with the history of vice, which is intertwined with the history of pleasure. Addictions are compulsive pursuits of transient, often disreputable pleasures that harm the individual and society.  

No brain jolt, no addiction.

In the beginning, yes. Later, not so much. One of the stranger things about addicts is that they keep wanting something after they have quit liking it. 

That’s true. I’ve got regulars who drink because they don’t feel good. But drinking makes them feel worse, so they drink some more. You should see their bar tabs. 

Without which you couldn’t stay open. No offense, but businesses that sell “temptation goods”—booze, pot, slots, porn—depend on heavy, regular consumers for most of their profits. 

That’s always been true. 

Yes, but selling—in fact, designing—addictive products has become more organized. It has become a global system I call limbic capitalism. 

Whoa. System? Limbic?

It’s a system because corporations, with the help of revenue-hungry governments and criminals, have systematically commercialized vice. Or what used to be called vice, which was part of the PR makeover. Basically, they McDonaldized bad habits, and then invented new ones with the help of smart people and advanced technology. That’s why we keep getting more, and more varied, addictions.

And limbic?

The ultimate target is the limbic region of your brain. That’s the part responsible for pleasure, motivation, long-term memory, and other basics you need for survival. Rich food tastes great for a reason. But here’s the thing: The same brain pathways let other people foster habits that work against your survival. Limbic capitalism weakens and kills people by undermining their appetite control. For every person who dies prematurely through homicide or war, thirty die from bad habits like smoking, overeating, distracted driving, or heavy drinking.

They should stop before it’s too late.

Many do. But better if they had never started. Saloonkeepers used to have a saying, “Treat the lads, and you’ll have their money in the till when they’re adults.” Limbic capitalists get this, which is why they target young people.  Take Brazil, where college sports clubs are big. Most have alcohol sponsors. They supply discount booze in exchange for advertising rights and exclusive brand use. 

Let me guess: The clubs use the booze to throw open-bar parties.

With cheap admission tickets and all you can drink. Result: lots of ODs, sexual assaults, and—here’s the business payoff—students who develop a taste for bingeing.

Not the same as addiction. Ever see this place on New Year’s Eve?  

Sure, and a hangover a year isn’t going to kill you. But bingeing isn’t harmless, either. It’s a step on a journey toward addiction. Maybe you never complete the journey. But if you begin it with regular binges when you’re young, you’ve got a good head start.

How else do these limbic capitalists hook you? 

By refining and blending pleasures in ways that make them ever more seductive. Know who Bill Wilson was?

Yeah, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

He took his first drink in 1917. It was a plain beer, served with a meal. It did nothing for him. But then, at another dinner party, someone handed him a Bronx Cocktail.   

Gin, sweet and dry vermouth, and orange juice. 

Scrumptious. And potent. It practically launched the guy into orbit. There’s a lesson there. Mixing matters, and not just behind the bar. The importance of blending is something historians often overlook. 

How so?

Because they usually focus on particular pleasures, vices, and addictions in particular eras and societies. Tea drinking in Japan. Prostitution in Italy. Opiate addiction in America—I wrote that one. Historians specialize to make their research manageable and to get it out before their dissertation directors and promotion committees start breathing down their necks. 

What’s wrong with that?

Academically, nothing. Historically, there’s a risk of distortion. Most people don’t experience pleasures one at a time or in isolation. They experience them in combinations and in commercial environments. Tavern and saloon owners used to compete for business by offering customers pipes for their tobacco. They served free or subsidized food, salted to whet their thirst. Then they added slot machines and silent movies as draws.

Don’t forget the hookers and faro dealers in the back rooms.

Which was why the saloon was the bullseye of the anti-vice crusade that peaked a century ago. Reformers saw vices as connected. They were like a web, with the alcohol industry in the center. They were right about the web. They were wrong that they could kill the spider.

Wait a sec, aren’t vices “social facts” too.

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.42.19

David Courtwright

They are. You should have majored in history.

I did. That’s my diploma, hanging behind the bar.

Then you know that definitions of vice, like everything else, vary with time, knowledge, and technology. When drinking water was polluted, drinking alcohol seemed prudent. When drinking water became safer, drinking alcohol seemed less justified. Temperance reformers built public water fountains. In 1891 they built one in Petaluma, California and chiseled a motto: TOTAL ABSTINENCE IS THE WAY TO HANDLE THE ALCOHOL PROBLEM.  

You’re saying that the temperance fountain wouldn’t have made much sense in 1791?

In that sanitary environment, no. Even Benjamin Rush, the eighteenth-century doctor who said that habitual spirit-drinking caused the disease of intemperance, thought of beer and cider as benign beverages. Bad habits are subject to renegotiation. With diabetes shooting off the charts, sugary food is becoming a contested pleasure, maybe even a vice. Meanwhile the prohibited vice of marijuana is becoming a contested—and legal—pleasure in Europe and the Americas.

And your limbic capitalists want vices tolerated?

More than that, they want them commercially mainstreamed. After they survived the big anti-vice reform wave in the early twentieth century, they went on the offensive. They used every PR, marketing, and lobbying trick in the book.

But they couldn’t hide addicted customers.  

No, so they admitted that some people lost control. Casinos subsidized hotlines, treatment centers, and big-name docs who studied the genetic basis of compulsive gambling. It was great publicity. Bring in the photographers, smile for the cameras, hand over the poster-sized checks. Let’s find out what’s wrong with this addicted minority. Meanwhile you normal types carry on gambling, while we figure out how to keep the problem types out of trouble. Which, of course, the industry did in only a token way, because it had invested a fortune in creating the problem minority that provided most of its profits.

Alcohol executives did it too?  

Are you kidding me? They invented the scam. That’s something I think other historians will get. The book shows how PR and marketing techniques in one industry affected others. Copycatting is another reason why limbic capitalism is a system, not just a random collection of businesses that happen to sell feel-good-fast products.

Limbic capitalism is your idea?

The phrase, yes. The idea, not entirely. In 1993 John Burnham, a contrarian with an offbeat sense of humor, published a book called Bad Habits. It showed how the vices of the Victorian male underworld—drinking, smoking, nonmedical drug use, sex outside marriage, swearing—survived Progressive reforms in the United States. Then, with the help of entrepreneurs and libertarians—think Hugh Hefner—these bad habits entered the cultural mainstream. Walk into a convenience store in 1993, what would you see?

Beer. Cigs. Lottery tickets. Porn. Rubbers. Rolling papers. I see what Burnham was getting at. You’re saying these businesses kept on growing?

Not only that, they grew worldwide. And online, which didn’t exist when Burnham was writing. The internet supercharged limbic capitalism. Five things encourage mass addiction: accessibility, affordability, advertising, anonymity, and anomie—being cut adrift socially and morally. The digital revolution juiced all five.

And created new bad habits.

Nothing is stickier than a smartphone. And don’t drive near me when your nose is stuck in one.

So, the future is more and more addiction?   

Not necessarily. Public health reformers have had some successes. The global campaign against cigarettes has stalled Big Tobacco, unless the vaping gambit succeeds. And there are decent policy choices that stop short of prohibition. Higher taxes on sugary drinks—or, for that matter, on booze. Ad bans. Upping and enforcing age restrictions. Public service announcements that ridicule limbic capitalists. Ridicule gets people’s attention.

You don’t think I know that after thirty years tending bar?

Point taken.

How much does the book cost?

Twenty-eight bucks for the hardcover. Or you can download the audiobook.

Who recorded it?

Qarie Marshall, an actor and pro narrator.

Did you think about the audiobook when you were writing?

Not really. I was thinking about a serious trade book. Put the research in the notes and let the narrative flow. For most readers it’s the story that matters, and it’s the story I wanted to tell. 

What’s your next story?

The prescription opioid fiasco. The last edition of Dark Paradise, the book about U.S. opiate history, came out in 2001, just as the OxyContin scandal was breaking. To say that the book’s now a couple of chapters short would be charitable. And talk about limbic capitalism. Opioid manufacturers and distributors, they’re the tops.

Well, here’s to sequels. Cheers.

Cheers.