Getting the glow doesn’t stop the drinking: the myth of the Asian glow

It was suggested to us in lecture that Asians are protected from alcoholic liver injury because many East Asians have a lack of the ALDH2 isozyme, a genotype that results in the infamous “Asian glow,” an inflammatory reaction to toxins generated by alcohol that leads to unpleasant symptoms. The glow, far from being a cute party trick, is basically the body’s way of saying, “Hey, idiot! I can’t process all the acetaldehyde you’re throwing in my systems. Stop it. Stop it now.”

I don’t deny that I drink less because I know that my face will become red puffiness after one vodka-cranberry. But I still drink, and take issue with the lecturer’s assertion that Asians are less likely to drink SOLELY because of the Asian glow, and that therefore, Asians are genetically less susceptible to alcoholism and its sequelae.

In a society where the average citizen takes the time to consider an issue thoughtfully from a variety of well-balanced perspectives, this kind of implicitly racialized information would not have much bearing. It might spur research to explore the potential of the ALDH2 gene, or specialized anti-alcohol campaigning for Asians and Asian-Americans.

But that is not this society. Instead, the assertion that Asians are genetically less susceptible to alcoholism creates assumptions that Asians don’t have problems with alcohol, can’t, in fact, because of their genes. It reinforces the idea that genetics is king, and environmental nuances like the fact that Asians and Asian-Americans have different drinking patterns, that different Asian ethnicities within the US have different drinking patterns, that China has the potential for millions of new alcoholics, have no impact on Asian risks for alcohol-related disease. Even this 1985 paper on alcohol use among Asians, which references the “shame-based” nature of many East Asian societies (that Asians are less likely to do offending/humiliating things because they fear public shaming) suggests there is inconclusive evidence about a biological-genetics explanation for “Asian abstemiousness,” and that social factors may play a role.

I resent attempted scientific dissection of the ALDH2 gene because it largely obscures other problems within the issue of Asians and alcohol. When you Google “Asian alcoholism” you don’t get NIH statistics or the stories of Asians struggling with alcohol addiction–you get articles about the Asian glow. The about.com page on alcoholism was actually the best reference I could find for general statistics about alcoholism in the US. This is part of the toxic effect that the “model minority” myth has.

Part of the lack of information is probably because Asians are such a small minority group in the US, and as a group, tend to be reserved about admitting or labeling problems. But ALDH2 has created an excuse to not probe further into the other facets of alcohol use and health outcomes. I worry that if we accept that Asians drink less because of a genetic mutation, we will miss opportunities to prevent alcohol-related disease in Asians.

As if health outcomes weren’t big enough stakes, you get reports like THIS about using the ALDH2 gene as a marker of human evolution (in my opinion markers of human evolution studies are at such high risk for leading to dicey neo-social Darwinist write-ups in the media) and I was just flabbergasted. Here’s the link to the  study itself, which suggests Native Americans, because they’re associated with alcoholism, are more likely to have Central Asian descent rather than East Asian. Because *obviously* if Native Americans had the glow genotype, they wouldn’t be such heavy drinkers! Never mind the hundreds of years of European exploitation, cultural genocide, and using alcohol as a pacifier to keep Native populations under control. OH. MY. GOD.

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