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Is peer pressure worse for adults?

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Everyone knows about peer pressure for teens. Parents, teachers and guidance counselors drill preventive measures into the youth of America from middle school through high school. Teens and tweens are warned time and time again that just because all their friends are doing something doesn't make it cool or necessary.

But our culture seems to take in stride the prevalence of peer pressure in the adult world, especially where alcohol is concerned – and especially here in Milwaukee. In this city built by immigrants, people are proud of their cultural heritage – and that often extends to a pride in alcoholic tolerance. Social drinking in particular is ubiquitous; considered almost essential to Milwaukee's beloved sense of Gemütlichkeit.

And those who abstain – for whatever reason – are often seen as just plain strange.

"Wisconsinites drink. We drink a lot. We're professionals," says Paul Bitzan of Milwaukee. "We hold in high regard those of us that can 'hold our liquor.' What may be considered 'binge drinking' in other regions is called 'Tuesday' here in southeastern Wisconsin"

As a married father with responsibilities, Bitzan says he simply lacks the time and the will to pay the price of alcohol consumption, and usually abstains. This causes raised eyebrows in his social circle.

"It's as if you are committing some kind of social taboo," he says. "Obviously, I cannot speak for women, but when a man chooses not to drink alcohol around here, people will figure he's a recovering alcoholic or they'll question his masculinity."

Emily Campbell is a Milwaukee native who attended school at what many consider to be America's drunkest university: UW-Madison.

"In my four years at UW-Madison I can't recall a single experience where a friend or acquaintance openly acknowledged the potential dangers of alcohol and binge drinking – until they were experiencing the consequences, of course," she recalls.

"It simply is not discussed. In fact, some of my closest friends who did not and would not drink a drop of alcohol throughout high school picked up a drink day one of college, as if some danger gate had suddenly released them, and never slowed down."

Campbell currently makes her home in Madison and has recently started the Paleo diet (also known as the "caveman" diet) which prohibits consumption of alcohol. She reports that the experience has been a surprisingly isolating one.

"Friends will go on for as long as 20 minutes trying to find a loophole in the plan's dietary restrictions and will try to reason me into drinking," she says. Common arguments waged by friends who are unhappy to be suddenly drinking alone include: "Cavemen totally had alcohol." "One drink won't hurt you." "Well, what about just red wine? Jesus had wine."

Dr. Michael Miller is the medical director of the Herrington Recovery Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc. He says that adult peer pressure is a common challenge faced by his patients, many of whom present with alcoholism, and that in treatment he often engages his patients in role-playing social situations where companions encourage them to drink.

"This is certainly a cultural challenge – one of the factors in using any drug, whether it be alcohol or something else, is the extent to which the culture supports using or supports abstaining, and our culture is very supportive of heavy use," he says.

"I've spent my entire career in Wisconsin and it's the case in other places – it's certainly not unique to Wisconsin. But most social events here are alcohol-related; even sporting events are very heavily alcohol-related. Wisconsin has the highest rate of adults who engage in binge drinking, especially females."

Bitzan agrees that Wisconsin has a unique pride in its ability to drink all other 49 states under the table.

"I think there is a fair population in this region who are proud to be drinkers," he says. "When one of us does not share that regional pride, it may be that others take that as an insult to the culture."

As someone who has all but renounced alcohol, he says he is met with reactions that have ranged from "a quick shrug of the shoulders to mild excommunication." His decision to abstain from alcohol isn't a big deal to him, but it is to many others.

"Some people can't handle it. They think there must be something wrong with me; that I've found Jesus; that I think I'm better than them. The truth is that I just don't enjoy it anymore."

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