If there’s one thing professor David Hanson has learned during the 40 years he’s spent researching alcohol and drinking, it’s this: When it comes to booze, we just don’t have our facts straight.
“There are more myths about alcohol than about almost anything else in our culture, except maybe sex,” says Hanson, a professor of sociology at State University of New York Potsdam. “We are constantly inundated with false information.”
From tall tales dating back to the temperance movement in the 19th century (no, Carry Nation, a “drunkard” won’t spontaneously combust) to urban legends (whiskey doesn’t really make you violent) to the Internet (sucking on a penny will not help you pass a Breathalyzer), rumors about drinking are rampant. To set the record straight—just in time for all those New Year’s Eve toasts—we consulted Hanson and a slew of scientific studies on ten common booze myths. Some were true, some were false—and some made our expert laugh out loud in disbelief. Here’s what we found:
1) “I’m taking it easy tonight—I’ll just have a few beers and be fine.” FALSE.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, standard drinks—a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1½ ounces of distilled spirits—all contain 1/6 ounce of alcohol. “People may be fooled into thinking they are drinking less alcohol than they really are, but the truth is all these drinks contain the same amount,” says Hanson. And they all read the same on a breathalyzer.
2) “Beer before liquor, never been sicker.” FALSE.
“There a bunch of these sayings, and all of them are absolutely untrue,” says Hanson. “It’s not what you drink, it’s how much you drink.” Since all standard drinks (Long Island Iced Teas excluded) contain the same amount of alcohol, there’s really no difference between a shot of tequila and a glass of Chardonnay.
3) I’ve had one drink per hour, so I can drive. MAYBE.
“The body typically metabolizes the alcohol in a standard drink at a rate of one drink per hour,” says Hanson. “If you’ve consumed only one drink per hour, you’d likely remain below the 0.08 legal limit.” Caution: That means you must wait one hour between each drink—having five cocktails at 7 PM doesn’t mean you can drive home by midnight. And since each body reacts differently to alcohol, we say play it safe and call a cab.
4) If I only drink clear beverages, I won’t get a hangover. TRUE (mostly).
Martini drinkers, rejoice! “A hangover is more likely to occur with darker beverages,” says Hanson. This is likely due to the toxic byproducts known as congeners that occur when aging spirits in casks or fermenting grains. In a 2009 Brown University study, bourbon was found to contain 37 times as many congeners as vodka. “That’s only part of it, though; clear beverages still need to be consumed in moderation to avoid that hangover,” cautions Hanson.
5) “I can’t drink Champagne—it just goes to my head! I’ll stick with wine.” TRUE.
Effervescent beverages are absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream, says Hanson. “If one person drinks white wine and one drinks Champagne, the Champagne drinker’s blood alcohol concentration will go up a little faster.” And according to a 2007 study by the University of Manchester, the effect is the same with distilled spirits mixed with carbonated beverages. Your best bet? Avoid the bubbly and choose a still mixer—or sip that vodka neat.
6) It’s okay to mix alcohol with caffeine (i.e., Red Bull and vodka). PROBABLY NOT A GOOD IDEA.
“The problem with a drink like Red Bull is that it masks the perception of intoxication,” says Hanson. “Alcohol is a depressant, caffeine is a stimulant—they counteract each other.” As a result, Hanson says that mixing the two encourages overconsumption. “These drinks are definitely undesirable when combined,” he says.
7) Drinking a glass of water between drinks will keep me from getting drunk. MAYBE.
“It’s definitely a good practice—alcohol is a diuretic, and alternating drinks with water can help stave off dehydration,” says Hanson. But will it keep you from getting intoxicated? “Again, it really just comes down to how much you are drinking. It can help you pace yourself and drink more moderately.”
8) I picked up a powder at the drugstore that totally cures hangovers. FALSE.
Drugstore remedies can treat your morning-after symptoms (nausea, headache, vomiting). A new, FDA-approved tablet called Blowfish contains aspirin, caffeine, and an antacid, but no hangover-eliminating miracle drug. The only foolproof cure? "Avoiding hangovers in the first place,” says Hanson.
9) Having a full stomach will help slow down the alcohol absorption. TRUE.
“The best practice is to munch on snacks continuously while you are drinking,” says Hanson. “This keeps the alcohol from entering the intestines, which is where the absorption really speeds up.” Think of it as an excuse to loiter around the guacamole (as if you really needed one).
10) He just needs to take a cold shower or slam a cup of coffee and he’ll sober right up. FALSE.
Unfortunately, none of the get-sober-quick methods truly work—not even Taco Bell. According to the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education at Notre Dame, only time will lower the body’s blood alcohol concentration. A person with a BAC of 0.20 who slams a cup of coffee will just be a wide-awake intoxicated person.