In his column about combating underage drinking three weeks ago, Tyler Jones referred to alcohol as a “crutch” that students shouldn’t have to rely on to manage stress or social situations (The battle for State Street, 09/17/2010). And while columnist Joe Sugiyama showed a better understanding of college life in his response column the following week, he didn’t outright refute the idea of alcohol as a crutch (It’s a sober world after all…, 09/21/2010).

If you asked the authors of a recent study entitled “Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality,” they’d likely tell you that alcohol has very tangible social benefits and is far from a crutch in most cases. From a sample of 1,824 participants between the ages of 55 and 65 over a period of 20 years, the study found higher mortality rates for non-drinkers than for heavy drinkers.

Yes, you read correctly. The study showed that moderate drinkers had the lowest mortality, while heavy drinkers — defined as those who drink three drinks or more a day on average — also showed lower mortality rates than those who abstain. The authors attributed the difference in mortality rates to the social differences between drinkers and non-drinkers. Non-drinkers were more likely to suffer from depression, isolation or other mental health issues.

Granted, this study should be taken with a grain of salt. While the findings in favor of moderate drinking were robust, the authors didn’t go as far as to say that the social benefits of binge drinking outweigh the health problems.

Still, the study can serve as evidence that drinking — and not just moderate drinking — holds a legitimate social role in many aspects of our society, including college. To borrow a term from sociology, drinking under the age of 21 may be technically illegal, but it’s by no means socially deviant. In other words, it’s more common for a college student to drink than abstain. This pattern has a lot to do with the prevalence of alcohol in all aspects of our culture — and contrary to Jones’s view, that’s not necessarily bad. Drinking among college-aged kids isn’t an epidemic, as some public officials want us to believe. It’s just normal.

In this vein, there’s a major contradiction between what students are taught about alcohol and how it’s actually perceived in society. At least among adults I know, there’s a general consensus that to a certain degree, drinking at a young age isn’t a problem. Many adults tend to be okay with high school students drinking in controlled situations, such as family functions, and for the most part they know that underage college students are going to drink. Most of our parents probably drank when they were in college, and for some of them, the drinking age was 18 at the time. These perceptions stand in sharp contrast to the hyperbolic messages we receive from public sources.

Just take a moment to think about the role of alcohol in society. How many beer commercials do you see on a daily basis? Try and count the number of adult social events — fancy dinners, bar nights, high school reunions — that involve alcohol. Even at many religious gatherings, drinking is the custom. Alcohol is prevalent in many aspects of social life and it’s simply naive to think that those under 21 aren’t going to partake.

Of course, I realize that alcohol can be extremely dangerous when consumed irresponsibly. I agree that the number of late-night hospital visits from underage kids due to drinking is unacceptable. But college students are disproportionally lectured about the dangers of drinking, even though they are not necessarily the most at risk. According to the Center for Disease Control, of all fatal car crashes in 2008 in which the person who died had a BAC above .08 percent, 34 percent was 21 to 24 years old, 31 percent was 25 to 34 years old and 25 percent was between 35 and 44 years old. Those between 18 and 21 aren’t even in the top three. Yet, a slogan like “Mothers Against Thirty-Year Olds Drinking” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But I don’t think irresponsible drinking is what we’re really talking about here. The problem is agencies like the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that claim it’s a problem that 83 percent of college students drinks at all, and those who argue that alcohol is an unnecessary crutch. Ultimately, these are the same groups that argue for stricter, ineffective law enforcement of underage drinking and fail to see the reality of alcohol’s place in society and its potential benefits.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu

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