Mark (mhaithaca) wrote,

Drinking yourself to death

Friday's story about the Cornell sophomore who was found "unresponsive" by a fraternity brother wasn't very detailed, but the Sheriff has since stated that alcohol consumption may have played a role in his death. That's also true in the case of the Ithaca College freshman whose body was found in the snow not far from the South Hill campus early Saturday afternoon. Reading between the lines, it sounds as though that 17-year-old local girl was stumbling home drunk on Friday night, and never got there.

One of my biggest frustrations about these coincidental tragedies is that all the "alcohol education" in the world is of limited value when you take teenagers who've never been allowed to drink and put them in an environment where drinking is a) possible, and b) part of life. zercool_panem's post on the subject brought to the surface more of my thoughts on the matter, so I'm going to share them with you.

As I commented over on Brian's post, sometimes someone is just going to drink themselves into a coma. It sucks, and you can try to say "Dude, you've had enough," but once in a while there's just no stopping someone from ingesting so much alcohol, so fast, that it will kill them. I'm not suggesting you shouldn't try; I do sometimes say "You've had enough." Sometimes it works, sometimes not. If someone had said that to the sophomore, would he be alive today? Hard to say, but it's always worth a shot.

The freshman probably needed someone to say "Let me walk you home," or "Let me call you a cab." I know roughly where she was found, since a friend of mine lived on that road a couple of years ago. It's pretty close to campus as the crow flies, but it's an uphill slog through lightly populated area in the best of conditions. The night after several inches of messy, slippery snow, walking was probably a bad idea.

You can blame binge drinking, and that's certainly the basic, proximate cause, but what's behind the binge drinking? My opinion, and I know I'm not alone, is that it's an unintended consequence of raising the (effectively national) drinking age to 21 in the 1980s. (It's hypothetically up to each state, but the states were strongarmed into falling in line with the threat of federal highway funds being taken away.)

Simply, if the vast majority of college students could walk into a bar and have a drink, with the drinking age at 18, drinking just wouldn't be a big deal. If parents were legally allowed to let their kids have a glass of wine or a beer in their homes, without qualification, drinking just wouldn't be a big deal. Binge drinking happens because drinking's a big deal. Sure, people drank to excess in bars before the drinking age went up, but at least you've got some form of professional, responsible supervision of the alcohol consumption in bars.

If most college students can't drink at the bar, they'll drink in their cars. (Great idea, eh?) Or at home. They'll drink a lot, really fast, so they can get drunk and then go out where they won't be able to drink. This is why there are drinks like Four Loco, featuring the alcohol of four beers in a single can, plus enough caffeine to keep you wired for the party you're heading to.

I've got to be up front about this: I drink. Sometimes I drink more than I ought to. I got to Cornell as the last of the general on-campus bars intended for student use were closing down, inevitably killed by the drinking age. (There are still a couple -- the Regent Lounge in the Statler Hotel caters mostly to hotel guests but also has staff, faculty, and yes, student audiences; and somehow the bar at the campus bowling alley has quietly remained open.)

There are things we can say to make it less likely that college students (or others) will drink themselves to death, and you can be sure in the wake of these incidents, some students will be a little less hesitant to say "You've had enough," or "I'm taking you home." Some bouncers and bartenders will be a little quicker to look at an already-intoxicated arriving patron and say "No, we're not serving you." Some students might even say "Wow, I didn't know you could drink yourself to death. I'd better slow down." But that will fade.

A surprising number of college administrators have suggested that lowering the drinking age and thereby eliminating most of the reason for binge drinking is the best way to reduce the incidence of disastrous alcohol-related issues on and around college campuses. They know the pain caused to family members and friends when a student dies. Why aren't we listening to them?

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