Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Sober Again?

By Jason Gay

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Less than a generation ago, America often excused alcohol abuse on college campuses with a wink and a "kids will be kids" rationale. We condoned, even celebrated, students' irresponsibility. The most enduring American image of the collegian is not John Harvard but John "Bluto" Blutarsky, the fraternity boozepig memorably played by John Belushi in the 1978 movie Animal House.

But our laissez-faire attitude toward college drinking, and drinking in general, has changed. Americans drink less alcohol per person than they did 20 years ago. And society's patience with those who drink too much grows shorter each year.

"When I started out in policing, there was a lot of lenience in dealing with alcohol and students," says Sergeant Margot Hill, spokesperson for the Boston Police Department. "But that's out the window now. The laws are more severe, and universities have gotten more serious."

David Musto, a professor of the history of medicine at Yale University, believes that America is well into its third temperance movement. The current outcry over college drinking is an example of a growing latter-day animosity toward alcohol and unhealthy living, he says.

"The peak of America's alcohol consumption was 1980, and since then, we have seen declines," Musto says. "When you look at this decline, you can see it [mirrored] by a progressive strengthening of the anti-alcohol movement."

Historically, American anti-alcohol movements have had links to religious crusades. But at their core, Musto argues, temperance movements have always been aggressively pro-health. During the first movement, from 1820 to 1850 -- in which some northern states, including Massachusetts, banned alcohol -- temperance supporters promoted exercise and avoided tobacco products and red meat. The second movement, which resulted in Prohibition, from 1919 to 1933, featured a similar clean-living agenda.

Today's so-called temperance movement isn't as dramatic or as strongly religious, but it's been effective at changing behavior. Its genesis can be traced to a general increase in American risk-consciousness in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Scientific reports fueled distaste for cigarettes, high-fat foods, and alcoholic beverages. High-profile public service campaigns such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began to change the public's perception not only of drinking and driving, but also of drinking in general.

The third temperance movement -- and groups like MADD -- has produced some impressive results with regard to alcohol. Since 1984, when Congress made states raise their minimum drinking age to 21 or risk losing federal highway funds, the number of alcohol-related automobile accidents among 16- to 21-year-olds has dropped precipitously. Hundreds of lives are saved every year.

So what's the problem?

Musto and other temperance-movement watchers, such as Brown University anthropologist Dwight Heath, feel that anti-alcohol activists promote abstinence without discussing responsible moderation. (For this reason, it's not surprising that American beer, wine, and liquor companies are also worried about a mounting temperance movement.)

But abstinence doesn't work for an average college or university. Too often, approaches to curbing college drinking are limited to crackdowns and bans, ignoring the fact that many students drink responsibly, Heath argues.

"We have taken aberrant drinking behavior and blown it up to being the norm," he says.

Worse, anti-alcohol discussions on campus can be divisive, with people taking "polarized, moralistic, and uncompromising positions," Musto says. Such rhetoric doesn't work with young students, who resist any attempt to curtail their freedom of choice.

"Scaring people doesn't have any real effect," says Musto.

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.

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