Tom Braslavsky: Alcohol education is the answer

Alcohol is the most harmful drug – worse than heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamines.

That is what a UK-based group of scientists published last week in a study in the medical journal The Lancet. The researchers ranked 20 drugs on 16 criteria relating to the drugs’ harmful effects on individuals, and alcohol came out on top. Alcohol led in criteria like risk for injury, economic cost and impact on the community.

Bringing this message closer to home, the EMeRG staff is working harder than ever this semester, treating and evacuating scores of students in alcohol-related situations. According to a press release that was up on the EMeRG website Friday – but was removed over the weekend – this year’s Halloween weekend saw 27 alcohol-related calls to our University’s volunteer emergency service, which is a record.

These new figures highlight the need to re-examine attitudes toward binge drinking among students at college campuses across the country, especially at GW. At the base of this re-examination lie the principles of education and awareness.

Many of us have gone through some kind of lecture on the dangers of alcohol and other drugs. At the same time, there are many who are unaware of some basic facts and simply shrug off these risks. Freshmen who are away from home for the first time in their lives have not been known to make the best decisions. Without awareness of the real dangers of drinking irresponsibly, bad things can happen.

Alcohol education should be required for freshmen within the first two weeks of the fall semester. This initiative should either be led by leadership in each individual residence hall, or by experienced guest speakers giving engaging speeches on the topic. This will ensure that new students are armed with knowledge about the potential consequences of their actions.

Similarly, all Greek-letter life organizations should also have mandatory alcohol education every year, making sure that all members know the risks and responsibilities of being around the substance. This is an important point because as GW Greek-letter life grows and becomes more influential on campus, we do not want it to begin altering some of the underlying differences between the social scene at GW and one at a state school. If all fraternity and sorority members can set the example of being trained in alcohol management, it would put the issue out into the open, make weekends safer and perhaps increase discussion about alcohol abuse in GW’s public square.

Some universities have proposed additional ways of dealing with alcohol abuse. Two years ago, 135 college presidents and chancellors signed the Amethyst Initiative, supporting a lower drinking age as the path to eliminating the binge-drinking student culture. Lower the drinking age, the argument went, and underage students won’t feel the need to get wasted every weekend. This is partly because it will be legal and partly because they will better know their limits. This proposal is still on the table, and maybe GW’s leadership could look into it, too.

Alcohol abuse on campus caused 1,825 student deaths and about 600,000 unintentional injuries in 2009, according to the federal government’s official “College Drinking Prevention” website. These numbers and the Lancet study should spark debate, but they should not be misunderstood. Of course, alcohol is not the worst substance in every single category. And no one is encouraging the use of other drugs because they’re not as bad. For one, alcohol is legal after a certain age and has been used throughout history by most of the world’s civilizations for social, cultural and religious purposes. Drinking in moderation poses few health risks, and in fact may sometimes have health benefits (red wine, anyone?).

But with such a high potential for abuse, students should have no illusions about drinking. Anyone can make a mistake one night and do something irresponsible – hopefully, not too irresponsible. In fighting alcohol abuse, awareness and knowledge are the two most important tools in preventing such mistakes.

-The writer, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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