Binge Drinking

December 11, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This is the face of an all-American kid, a face with a future. But within weeks of enrolling at MIT this fall 18-year-old Scott Krueger was dead after main-lining not drugs but alcohol while at a fraternity celebration. He drank so much so fast that he simply poisoned himself with booze.

Only weeks before there had been another such fatality, a 20-year-old pledge at Louisiana State. We said we were shocked as the media suddenly told us the sobering news that college drinking is epidemic, not just drinking, but hard core binge drinking, defined as inhaling five drinks in a row, four for women. According to a Harvard School of Public Health Study 86 percent of the country’s fraternity members say they engage in ritualized binging.

Overall, an estimated 44 percent of all college students are bingers. America’s 12 million undergraduates spend $5.5 billion on alcohol each year, more than on soft drinks and textbooks combined. But how could we be shocked really? Maybe it’s just that we’ve been stuck in drug phobia mode since the 1960’s, from reaper madness to heroin chic, we’ve been unnerved by the rise and fall and rise again of drug use among our kids. But all the while, like a reliable friend, alcohol has been there–legal and out in the opening.

Liquor ads are everywhere, promising romance, just like the movies. What could beat Rick and Ilsa sipping champagne in “Casablanca,” or the legions of stars who have flirted over a martini?

ACTOR: Here’s looking at you, kid.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Even the film drunks like William Powell in the “Thin Man” movies, or Dudley Moore’s “Arthur” or adorable, lurching around amusingly. Adulthood–sophistication–sex–alcohol promises it all. Yes, we’ve had our bad drinkers like Ray Milan in “The Lost Weekend.”

ACTOR: Don’t wipe it away Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: But mostly in our entertainment the promise of liquor has wildly outweighed its peril. Even an apparently cautionary tale like “Leaving Las Vegas” can’t help but celebrate the romance of self-destruction. And what appeals more to a young person, newly out of the house, dislocated between adolescence and adulthood, grasping for self-definition, than this very idea of self-destruction, of pushing the limits?

Certainly, hardy drinking has gone on at colleges and universities forever. But in this new binging there is a mania, a desire to be blotto, cross-eyed, stupefied with booze, that strikes even this old 60’s kid as something new and dark and desperate, a macho ritual that now even includes young women. Yes, they too are proving their macho mettle by knocking them back, only to wake, some of them, in the bed of a stranger. No doubt, we are seeing some sexual nihilisms in the age of AIDS. There is a fear that alcohol does away with and a devil-may-care attitude that it emboldens.

Date rape, in all too many instances, is about booze and blurred lines. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and allows intimacies, however non-intimate, for kids who have spent endless hours in front of TV and computer screens, the screened-off generation, if you will, looking for some lit up camaraderie in communal binging. They are also, many of them, kids of divorce nursing their old childhood wounds, right along with the bottle. But then again the whole country is on a kind of re-binge. Martinis are chic again. And there is a push-the-envelope edge to life, people engaging in extremes of this or that, extreme fighting, extreme scheme. Is it so strange then that college kids are engaged in extreme drinking? Maybe not so strange, but there is something very sad about it, not to mention potentially deadly–our children poisoning themselves with America’s favorite legal drug.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.