Harvard's Favorite Drug Habit

IT'S FRIDAY night. You and several friends are party-hopping. As you leave a Dunster House party (because the daiquiris have dried up), you overhear the host telling some of his guests to go into the stairwell if they want to smoke. Approaching one of the famous Adams House A-entry parties, you step cautiously around a student who's being led out to an ambulance by two police officers.

Ah, yes. Harvard, the garden of earthly delights. For many students, Harvard is no great shakes socially. Derisive comparisons with other colleges and even with high school abound. But in one respect, Harvard social life differs little from that of any other college; it is more socially acceptable to abuse alcohol--even to the point of alcoholism--than it is to smoke.

Most of us have heard or told the story about a first-year room-mate who got terrifically smashed every weekend, or every night. Or we've told the one about our friend's recent blackout, when (ha ha) he couldn't remember anything about the woman he slept with that night. Or we've smelled the vomit in the communal bathrooms in Matthews, Thayer or Weld.

Perhaps we have complained about the noise at a neighbor's party, or told a friend to take it easy on those quartsteins of keg-beer. More likely, we've taken these things as routine, and even sat by as one of our friends drank glass after glass of beer in a game of quarters or slammed eight shots of tequila at a raucous party.

Meanwhile, the same students pressure each other to quit smoking. They diligently point out "NO SMOKING" signs in Harvard buildings, but become enraged when the University takes a few feeble steps to enforce alcohol laws. Even The Crimson has outlawed smoking in the newsroom (although vodka shots are actually encouraged).

BUT then, everyone drinks heavily in college, don't they? And most people don't end up as alcoholics, right?

Right. Ninety percent of Harvard students who drink will most likely learn to drink responsibly and never have a long-term drinking problem, according to Harvard's Project Alcohol and Drug Dialogue (ADD), an alcohol-and drug-abuse education group.

Many student drinkers may have short-term drinking problems, but with time will learn to correct their behavior and drink with moderation. As one friend of mine said recently, "I would never think of getting so drunk so often as I did freshman year."

But while it lasts, students' alcohol abuse extracts a heavy toll. In an average week, two to three students are treated at UHS for alcohol-related injuries or alcohol poisoning, according to Dr. David S. Rosenthal '59, director of the University Health Services. Although one could claim that alcohol abuse affects only those who suffer from it, such rhetoric ignores grim realities. Rosenthal says that alcohol abuse is closely related to date rape, is the single largest contributing factor of injuries on campus, and helps increase the rate of sexually transmitted diseases due to indiscriminate sex.

Smoking may be annoying, but when was the last time you heard of anyone being pushed down the stairs by someone with a violent nicotine rush? Non-smokers may be at slight health risk from passive smoking, but we are certainly all at risk from the effects of alcohol abuse--immediate, violent effects.

Smoking, after all, rarely takes over a person's life the way alcohol can. Cigarettes rarely cause people to abuse their children, lie routinely, miss days of work or crash their cars into school buses.

HARVARD'S indulgence of intoxication reflects that of the society at large. On the whole, society benefits from a general awareness of the dangers of smoking. But this awareness often boils over into unjustified fury at friends lighting up the old cancer sticks. And just why is there no similar fury against the guy sucking down 16 ounces of beer through a funnel and a rubber hose?

The disparity between peer-pressure against tobacco and alcohol is so much a part of our culture that we scarcely notice even the most blatant examples. Many non-smokers feel entitled to deliver a physiology lecture every time a friend lights up a smoke. Why no solemn words about the ill-effects of alcohol when those friends pour a drink? No one I know proudly displays cigarette butts in their room, but an empty Stoli bottle on the mantle is a symbol of adulthood. Few Marlboro posters grace the walls of Harvard dormitories, but who knows how many Harvard suites have a Budweiser poster or a neon beer sign?

It is likely that 10 per cent of Harvard drinkers will later become problem drinkers or alcoholics. We may never notice their addiction, because it may take years to develop. One of the pernicious things about alcohol addiction is the length of time it can take to overwhelm a person's life. Your roommate who occasionally gets "silly" on weekends may, in 20 years, be a violent, broken alcoholic.

Then again, some people may become dependent upon alcohol after the very first gulp. Those with a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism are said to be up to six times as likely to become alcoholics.

IN LIGHT of these risks, social mores at Harvard could do with a little revamping. Although it is impossible to know with certainty how much drinking is "too much," we certainly ought to disapprove of activities geared toward consuming as much alcohol as humanly possible (which seems to be the goal of so much of college social life).

Irishman that I am, I'm reluctant to counsel complete abstinence. Used sensibly, alcohol is pleasurable and not unduly dangerous. But shouldn't abstinence at least be socially acceptable? Shouldn't we try to discourage, rather than encourage, taking the next drink as soon as the first is drained? And shouldn't games intended to promote overconsumption, such as "Quarters" and "I Never" be condemned as the self-abuse that they are?

We should be aware of the danger signs of problem drinking: drinking alone, drinking to get drunk, increased tolerance (currently a status symbol), feeling guilty about drinking, blackouts and memory loss. Socially unacceptable as it is, you would be doing a friend a favor if you pointed out such behavior.

You would be doing society a favor, too. The damage of excessive alcohol consumption is not limited to the kidneys of the drinker. The message that Harvard social life sends to students is that the best and most sure-fire way to have fun is to lose control of the reasoning faculties and self-control that got them here in the first place. That's a lot to lose for a great party.

Liam T.A. Ford '91 likes a cold beer now and then.