For the past few years, Kristen Ciccolini has watched as some of her favorite events and activities increasingly transformed into opportunities to drink.
It was subtle, at first — a yoga class held at a brewery, a cooking course where students sipped wine as they worked. All activities, she reasoned, in which alcohol didn’t seem entirely out of place.
But when she arrived not long ago for a spin class to find it paired with a post-workout tequila tasting, it felt like a bridge too far.
“I’m not a teetotaler — I like a glass of wine, I like to have a good cocktail,” says Ciccolini, a 31-year-old nutritionist from Boston. “But the fact that it has to be involved in every single activity is really frustrating.”
It’s also the new normal, part of a cultural moment in which any event — from poetry readings to workout classes to road races — can serve as an excuse to imbibe.
Poets and Pints. Drinking and Drawing. Treadmill and Tequila. Attend most any kind of activity in the city these days, and there’s a good chance it features a drinking component.
“You can’t get your hair cut without a drink,” says Ayelet Hines, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noting the growing practice of barbershops and salons providing patrons with a pre-haircut beer.
“How did we get here?”
It’s a good question, and one with more than one answer.
In the 20 or so years since tech companies began stocking office kitchens with kegerators in an effort to entice young talent, blurring the lines between work and play, fast-food chains from Burger King to Taco Bell have experimented with hawking beer and wine. Overpriced ales have become a staple in multiplexes across the country. Even daily errands are quickly becoming opportunities to partake; some Whole Foods locations allow customers to sip wine as they shop for groceries.
Experts attribute the phenomenon to a variety of factors, from the desire among younger generations for more experiential (read: Instagrammable) activities to a general loosening of the collar when it comes to views on alcohol.
“I think it’s all about evolving cultural norms,” says Jeff Fromm, a partner at Kansas City-headquartered marketing firm Barkley and author of the book “Marketing to Millennials.” “Consumers accept that as long as you’re not drunk, and you’re not driving, that alcohol is acceptable everywhere from [fast-casual] restaurants to movie theaters to yoga studios.”
This shift is no accident, says David Jernigan, professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. Rather, he says, it’s the result of an alcohol industry that has worked tirelessly to break down social restrictions on drinking, annually pouring billions of dollars into marketing.
The marketing toward women has been particularly intense, Jernigan notes, with wine being branded almost as a health food, complete with terms like “Mommy Juice” and “Mommy’s Little Helper.”
“The point of alcohol marketing is to integrate the product into every aspect of people’s lives, and that’s what you’re seeing — it’s an alcohol marketer’s dream,” Jernigan says. “So they’re doing their job; the message that’s getting lost here is the public health cost.”
There’s no doubting the demand for such events.
When Jenna Hill, a local yoga teacher, began hosting classes at a collection of area breweries a few years back, she immediately realized she’d tapped into something promising.
“The events just started selling out,” she says.
These days, the practice has grown so common that hosting an event without drinks can leave participants grumbling.
While reading over her students’ evaluations following a boozeless cooking course she recently led, Ciccolini was surprised to find a comment bemoaning the lack of drinks — especially, she says, because “it was a class on anti-inflammatory cooking, and one of the things we talked about was eliminating alcohol if you have an inflammatory condition.”
Proponents of the booze-inclusive events argue that alcohol adds a social component to activities like yoga, encouraging class participants to interact.
And if the promise of a post-class drink compels someone to take a workout class they otherwise wouldn’t, all the better.
“It gives you another reason to go somewhere,” says Marika McCoola, part of the management team at Porter Square Books, which this summer will host a Grown Up Book Fair in which attendees can sip beer while browsing summer reads. “There’s two things enticing you instead of one.”
Some, though, have been less enthralled with the booze-ification of everyday events.
In March, when Whole Foods sought permission from the Sudbury Board of Selectmen to serve beer and wine to customers, Selectman Leonard A. Simon quickly took issue with the idea, later adding that he was “appalled at Whole Foods’ chutzpah.”
“This is a suburban supermarket with kids in it,” he said. “Why are you doing this?”
Critics also wonder whether we’re growing too comfortable with alcohol, forgetting its well-documented harms when abused.
Research shows that, as is the case with any drug, greater access to alcohol will lead to greater consumption, Jernigan says, noting that the declining stigma surrounding alcohol has quietly coincided with some troubling statistics.
From 2007 to 2017, Jernigan says, death rates from alcohol increased 43 percent. From 2006 to 2014, alcohol-related emergency room visits increased by more than 60 percent. And while drunken driving deaths have fallen dramatically over the past quarter-century, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving national president Helen Witty, the past five years have seen a 9 percent increase.
“If, as a society, we’re going to become more lax,” Witty says, “then we need to understand what comes along with that.”
Even as she bemoans the ubiquitousness of alcohol, however, Ciccolini admits that it might be too late to put the spilled wine — and beer and vodka and tequila — back in the bottle.
The coming summer months are sure to bring more booze-themed events; in the next few weeks alone, Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville will be hosting “Science by the Pint,” an evening with a local scientist to discuss tiny fossils; “Lions, Tigers, and Beers, Oh My!” hosted by the Zoo New England; and “Hops and Homebuyers,” a workshop for first-time home buyers.
And having seen firsthand the popularity of such events, Maggie Walsh Deaver, cofounder and CEO of Yoga Around Town, has come to the following conclusion: Nixing her class’s post-workout social hour would almost certainly result in a decline in interest.
As she puts it, “It’s the norm now.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.