College Students and Alcohol: Let's Try Teaching Them
by Brian C. Bennett

According to a new study from the National Institute of Health, alcohol consumption at American colleges is a "crisis." The facts are straightforward enough: 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 sexual assaults per year. Not surprisingly, a minority of drinkers (44 percent), consume most of the alcohol (70 percent) and make it bad for everybody else. Predictably, the buzz is on about how to address the issue. Cracking down on fraternity parties, "zero-tolerance," and other extreme measures are the word of the day, but unfortunately will do nothing to alter what is happening.

This latest focus of societal angst is merely the predictable outcome in an equation which includes "zero-tolerance," "just say no," the general American characteristic of excessive consumption, and a belief in magic numbers -- in this case that number is 21. You could see this coming a mile away if you were paying attention.

It is extremely important to remember that alcohol is, above all else, a powerful and dangerous drug. Being "legal" doesn't make it in any sense benign, and being "21" is not a magical shield of protection against ignorance. In order to find a long lasting solution to this issue, we must come to terms with the notion that teaching kids how to use drugs properly is the only road to success. Don't tell them to "just say no," tell them how to "say yes safely" instead.

In today's world, kids are raised with two conflicting messages with regard to drugs: on the one hand, we have the hopelessly simplistic "just say no" message, and on the other we have the "take this you'll feel better" approach. From infancy to early adolescence, children are treated with a wide variety of pills, potions, unguents and injections all of which are administered with the goal of making them feel better. "Come on sweetie, swallow this it will make you feel better," says mom. Children's drugs even come in a variety of fruit flavors to make the drugs more palatable and appealing. Constant bombardment with drug advertising has become a societal norm.

When your child encounters the first cigarette, joint or beer offered to them with the words "try this you'll feel better," what do you suppose the outcome will be? Having been primed to be a drug user for the entirety of their lives, how effective can the message "just say no" really be? If telling a child "no" doesn't keep his hand out of the cookie jar, how effective will it be against keeping an adolescent away from other goodies?

The only thing missing is someone teaching kids how to do dangerous things safely. Sure, we are told to "drink responsibly," but nobody ever tells us what that really means. Rather than flipping a switch on someone's 21st birthday and turning him or her loose completely unprepared, we owe it to our children and society as a whole to ensure that they are ready to face the challenges and dangers of life.

You may have a rule that drinking and other forms of drug use are forbidden, but your rules are the very thing being challenged by a developing adolescent. It is far better and wiser to teach them how to safely mitigate the risks they indulge, rather than depending on sloganeering or attaining magical ages to rescue them. The solution to irresponsible drug use is to end the "just say no" mentality, and replace it with how to "say yes responsibly."

Written Apr 10, 2002

A version of this appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Apr 11, 2002. Archive link.

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