'Perhaps we should start being honest about it'

Posted: Aug 29, 2002 12:00 AM
When I went off to boarding school my physician father said, "Except for food, don't put anything into your mouth that isn't given to you by a doctor." The advice helped make that teenager a non-smoker. In college, it helped him avoid the peyote, mescaline and marijuana that in the early '60s were beginning to worm their way into the collegiate - and national - culture. It did not help with alcohol. Fraternity drinking bouts are still the stuff of legend, and even now a drink or two can go down rather nicely. This rare bit of personal history is presented here to inform the reader, prior to what follows, that the writer is not a total prig. For the hour is at hand to talk about booze. It is everywhere. It's the elephant in the living room that we refuse to notice. Yes, it has been around for millennia. Yes, alcoholic merriment was rooted on college campuses as far back as the 12th century, when a bunch of Oxford divinity students composed one of the most enduring drinking songs, "Gaudeamus Igitur." Yes, drinking was so bad at the University of Virginia, causing student riots, that in the 1820s founder Thomas Jefferson urged that alcohol and other "vicious irregularities" be banned. Still, the impression - how to quantify it even in this age of quantification? - is that alcohol infuses this society to an extent rarely seen. Advertising glorifies it. Without it most parties bomb. The shelves of wine shops spill over with bottles from around the globe, and beer stores are not far behind. (Never mind the divine aroma; never mind the unique blend of barley and hops: We're talking here about variant flavors of an addictive drug.) With not much success, colleges struggle to deal with the drinking "rite of passage." The latest effort is "social-norm marketing," extensively funded by brewers and others. Colleges having given up on trying to convince students that drinking can be dangerous, this is the nifty notion that pushing the health benefits of moderation (ah, yes: "drinking, the healthy choice") is far better than employing the scare tactics of abstinence - which suggests nothing quite so much as that the game is over. And now the news columns and rumor mills are full of stories about the things high-schoolers and middle-schoolers are doing as a consequence of alcohol - to others and to themselves. Even as the experiments in combating this scourge proliferate, the ages of those using alcohol descend. Look at the numbers. Remember the campaigns to combat "binge drinking" on campus? A major study has found that on an average day four college students die in accidents involving alcohol. An additional 1,370 suffer injuries tied to drinking and 192 are raped by their dates or sexually assaulted after drinking. In the culture at large, let's see: According to the Justice Department, alcohol is a factor in one-fourth of aggravated assaults, one-third of sex crimes, one-half of homicides, and two-thirds of domestic violence cases. And there are those staggering numbers about the role of booze in highway accidents and deaths. So as everybody knows, alcohol liberates anger. It promotes stupid behavior. It prevents learning. It drives its abusers down. It shreds emotions, it wounds and it kills. Yet we look the other way, give it a wink and a nod, tell ourselves we are immune to its effects, pretend it is not there or is not a problem, dismiss how it plays out in riots as "racial tension" or "mob psychology" or "inadequate law enforcement," and respond to its spreading use ineffectually - or not at all. And abjectly grateful parents say of their drinking children, "At least they're not on drugs." Anyone with a sure-fire remedy would lead the charts as the planet's richest individual. "Responsible drinking" may be almost as much an oxymoron as "responsible premarital (or non-marital) sex." In this country, the only way may be raising the drinking age to, say, 25 - which, of course, never is going to happen - and getting stricter with punishment (as we should with even initial drug use). This is hardly an appeal for what Winston Churchill called - as he famously could - "intemperate self-restraint." Yet without a massive cultural change, which isn't going to happen either, it seems the nation's drinking problem is destined to grow worse. And we are to wince at its consequences and to read periodic observations such as these from two women - the first a Yale sophomore, the second the lately late author (Caroline Knapp) of "Drinking: A Love Story." (1) "A large number of undergraduates at Yale are alcoholics. ... I always have to laugh when my parents ask if anyone 'binge drinks' at Yale, because there isn't any other kind of drinking here. A good number of people start drinking around 9 p.m. and just keep going until they throw up, pass out, run out of alcohol or manage to make it back to their room with the object of their desires, at which point they are usually too drunk even to get their clothes off." (2) "Tobacco has been vilified in this culture. The war on drugs is waged on illegal narcotics: crack, heroin, cocaine. Ecstasy is now enjoying its place in the spotlight, the social ill du jour. Alcohol, meanwhile, is abused by some 14 million Americans and contributes to the deaths of 100,000 each year. Our culture bottles it, buys it, uses it, glamorizes it, needs it. Perhaps we should start being honest about it, too."