Students, society condone alcohol abuse in college

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Numerous heated conversations have transpired about the social scene at Occidental since the moratorium on school dances last fall, yet virtually none delve into the complex relationship students have with alcohol. Although both sides of the debate have raised pointed questions and concerns about the implications of Occidental’s policy regarding alcohol use, the extent to which students use and abuse alcohol has yet to take center stage in such discussions. On the majority of college campuses Occidental included students, administrators and, to a certain extent, faculty members implicitly condone a culture of abusive consumption of alcohol that can adversely affect students’ lives.

Just as with coffee or chocolate cake, alcohol in moderation can be consumed in manageable ways that does not negatively affect people’s daily doings. It also serves important social functions across different cultures and is not, in and of itself, a product that merits immediate dismissal as problematic. What does necessitate further evaluation, however, is how heavily people consume it, why they consume it in excessive amounts and why the tacit abuse use of alcohol is accepted in our national and collegiate cultures.

We have reached a point as a society where the culture of alcohol consumption by young people has become almost exclusively one of dangerous and excessive binging. Students often joke with one another about being alcoholics or having
alcoholic tendencies, but seldom do students reflect on their own or
their friends’ experiences with alcohol. For many, the hardest part of confronting an abusive relationship with alcohol is admitting that a problem exists in the first place.

While the majority of Occidental students would not necessarily fall under the category of an alcohol abuser, some do, and many students have had negative experiences of drinking too much. Instead of reflecting on why those experiences were harmful and devising strategies for avoiding them in the future, students often dismiss bad nights of drinking as a night of “going too hard” and laugh about the wild things they did but do not remember.

Whether students drink to celebrate achievements, to
distract themselves from a test they bombed or to help them in their
social lives, all students have some kind of relationship with alcohol.
Although it should be stated that many students choose to abstain from
drinking altogether and others consume alcohol in a non-problematic way, those students are nevertheless affected: the person who binge drinks every night of every weekend could be the friend of a student who does not drink at all. As a small insular community, students should want to be there for their peers if they are struggling.

This unspoken issue of
alcohol abuse does not cease at the end of undergraduate careers. Individuals who develop an abusive relationship with alcohol at an early age have a much higher chance of developing alcoholism later in life. As has been made abundantly clear, a culture of dangerous drinking behaviors pervades campus life and simply telling students who engage in unhealthy behaviors to stop is inexcusably naïve. If students feel concern about their own or their friends’ consumption of alcohol, then a respectful, nonjudgmental and open space must be created so that, as a student body, we can more honestly understand the abusive use of alcohol.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA),
nearly half of undergraduates who consume alcohol binge drink, meaning
that they consume four to five drinks over a two-hour period. A
quarter of college students experience difficulties in their academic
lives as a consequence of their drinking, including missing class and
receiving lower grades. Alcohol-related health problems develop in over
150,000 college students, while 19 percent of 18- to 24-year-old undergraduates qualify as having dependent or abusive relationships with alcohol. At a school of Occidental’s size, that would amount to approximately 400 students who abuse alcohol.

Alcoholism,
defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as the
inability to stop drinking once a person starts drinking (in one
sitting), having a high tolerance, craving alcohol and “continued use
despite repeated physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems,”
affects millions of Americans. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, is
defined by the CDC as the use of alcohol that negatively impacts a person’s
health, work and relationships. According to the NIAAA,
17 million Americans either abuse alcohol or qualify as alcoholics, and
alcohol-related deaths are the third-leading cause of
preventable deaths in the United States.

The reality is that although many students may not qualify as “alcoholics” per se, many have a problematic relationship with alcohol. If students who struggle with their alcohol use do not address their abuse of or dependence on it, transitioning out of college will be all the more difficult.

Alcohol can serve as a “social lubricant” not only in college parties but also in life after college. Social gatherings from weddings to office parties to weekend activities tend to revolve around the consumption of alcohol. Seniors can expect to continue participating in a drinking culture after they graduate, whether they are grabbing drinks with coworkers at the end of the week or trying to make friends after moving to a new city.

It is imperative that students ask themselves and each other how alcohol use and abuse ripples out into their personal lives, their professional lives and their surrounding community. Occidental students are well-versed in the harmful consequences of binge drinking, including violence against others, sexual assault, death and unintended injury. But as a community, Occidental needs to move beyond this basic understanding of alcohol abuse. The takeaway point is not to shame people about their behaviors or to definitively vilify alcohol, but instead to get students — and the rest of the Occidental community thinking more critically about how, why and when they use alcohol.

Cordelia Kenney is a senior history major. She can be reached at ckenney@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyCKenney.