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Culture shift needed: U.S. approach to alcohol is broken

In March 2004, a college student named Jason Reinhardt entered a bar frequented by North Dakota State University students at midnight on his 21st birthday and began throwing back shot after shot during a ritual common at the time called your “Power Hour.”

From the exact minute you are literally able to consume your first legal drink — midnight — to bar closing — 2 a.m. — you consume 21 shots, a sort of warped rite of passage for many college students.

Friends cheered him on as the bar provided Reinhardt with a metal bucket — a souvenir from the event — as he vomited his 13th shot, a “Prairie Fire,” a nasty combo of tequila and Tabasco.

After closing, Reinhardt returned home, escorted by his buddies, and never woke up. This occurred about two years after Lance Jerstad went into a coma following a Power Hour at the same bar.

Even knowledgeable parents would be shocked
For students in the Fargo-Moorhead area, none of this was shocking. The more than 40 bars between the two cities are mostly fueled by students from the four colleges; their livelihood was made from students willing to hand over what little money that had for a good time, and often an extreme one. If parents could get a peek into what went on inside those establishments, even the most knowledgeable would be shocked at what bar owners let happen.

It took a death for some of those bars to crack down on the ritual.

The Associated Press recently released an analysis of deaths attributed to alcohol poisoning between 1999 and 2005.

Surprisingly, only 6.2 percent of deaths were among college-age people ages 18-23. Not surprisingly, of those, 83 deaths involved victims under the legal drinking age.

Labeling college students uninhibited drunks is not entirely correct; many students drink responsibly, and many more, in fact, don’t drink alcohol at all, whether they are of legal age or not. There are students who do say “no” or do not put themselves in those situations. And according to many studies, binge drinking on college campuses nationwide is on the decline.

Reasons galore for binge drinking
The reasons young people choose to binge drink are convoluted. Some claim there’s nothing else to do, others feel an indirect or direct societal pressure, and many have never experimented with alcohol and have been thrown into an environment saturated in it. Parties, bars, drinking games, fraternity houses — the college experience for some students revolves around social gatherings focused on alcohol.

But the deaths tallied in the AP analysis are not exclusive to youth — the survey was the total of all deaths attributed to alcohol poisoning.

Much of our infatuation with alcohol (and the dangers of it) is a culmination of our culture’s attitude toward the stuff.

As a teen or even pre-teen, we are warned of the perilous consequences of drinking. Drunken driving arrests and deaths are imminent, alcoholism inevitable … the “gateway drug” will likely lead you down the path to unwanted pregnancies, drug addiction, crime, unemployment, dropping out of school. We are not taught at those ages how to drink responsibly; we are taught not to drink at all. Ever. Bad things could happen, and we must protect these young and vulnerable people.

For some teens, at least in today’s society, danger is sexy. The possibility of getting caught, of doing something prohibited, could make you part of a “desirable” crowd. Of course, school environments and communities vary on this perception, but there is always that one group of kids who subconsciously finds the “other side of the tracks” a little bit more appealing.

It’s so easy to obtain
Alcohol is easily accessible to underage kids. Find a “buyer,” and you are in. Raid the parents’ cabinets, get a fake I.D., buy an expired one from a legal age friend, befriend a local bar employee. There’s always that one kid whose parents let him or her drink and even have parties at home. Usually, alcohol is readily available and accessible if teens want it.

The United States has the highest legal drinking age in the world; those even close include Japan and Iceland at 20 and South Korea at 19. Most others have set their age at 18, 16 or do not have a minimum age requirement. Some states, however, allow those under 21 to drink when parents or guardians provide consent or are present.

Many experts believe this “prohibitionist” approach is failing, but the majority of Americans do not agree.

Results from a July 2007 Gallup poll show that “more than three in four Americans — 77 percent — say they would oppose a federal law that would lower the drinking age in all states to age 18. Just 22 percent of Americans would support such a law.”

The poll showed that 60 percent of Americans believe penalties for underage drinkers should be more strict; Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 had much more lenient views toward underage drinking.

Regardless of the many stances on alcohol and drinking, it cannot be ignored that the nation’s approach is broken. Attitudes in this culture need to somehow change so we can work toward curbing this problem.

Katie Johnson is the news editor at the Austin Daily Herald, where she also covers education. She is a 2004 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. This piece is reprinted with permission of the Austin Daily Herald, where it first appeared.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 07/15/2008 - 05:34 pm.

    At the time, the feds essentially forced states to raise their drinking age to 21 by threatening to stop federal highway funding to those states that did not raise their drinking age to 21 by a certain date.

    This issue is a challenge. If you are 18:

    – you are old enough to vote;
    – you are old enough to buy lottery tickets and/or visit a casino;
    – you can buy and use tobacco;
    – you can ride a motorcycle in Minnesota without a helmet;
    – you can sign for loans, credit cards, etc.;
    – you can go into the armed forces….

    ….but you are still considered too young to buy and/or consume alcohol legally.

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