A British perspective on American drinking culture

| Staff Columnist

A Friday night at Wash U. We all know the signs. The inebriated underclassmen staggering around the Swamp on their way to Frat Row, having consumed far too much alcohol in far too short of a time. They pack their way onto the Campus Circulator in order to shorten the journey by a few minutes and stumble off to try to get into either this house or that. Such a scene is repeated at countless universities across the nation. Being in London for the semester, I have thankfully been spared this weekly occurrence (although Europeans do have an unusual fascination with fraternity culture) and have adapted to British drinking culture. I personally believe it to be far healthier than the “customs” (if you can call them that) American college students follow. Rather than only binging on weekends (although that still happens but to a far lesser extent than at American schools), it is far more common to grab a beer at a local pub following a stressful or long day in class as a way to socialize and commiserate with friends.

Rather than stigmatizing and hiding it, the university embraces alcohol as both a social lubricant, a way for students to meet one another and socialize, a revenue generator, and a way to keep drinking safe, preventing much of the binging that occurs at American universities. There are certainly legal constraints preventing something similar from occurring at American universities, and I believe that, far from preventing the current, incredibly unhealthy drinking culture, they encourage it. The American drinking age is 21, the oldest in the world (among countries that allow drinking). This stigmatization and separation encourages minors to consume alcohol simply because it is forbidden. For those who grow up with it, alcohol becomes a daily fact of life rather than a substance stigmatized and outlawed until a fairly old age and can therefore be dealt with far more maturely by people of the same age. For a basic comparison, binge drinking costs the U.K. about £20 billion ($33 billion) annually, for a population of around 62 million, or about $530 per person. It costs the United States about $223 billion every year, which, with a population of around 315 million, results in $708 loss per person. If we were able to reduce damage due to drinking down to U.K. levels, it would save the government and American consumers about $56 billion annually.

What is my point? Laws and regulations in the US and at American schools simply are not encouraging a healthy drinking culture. Experience from Prohibition tells us that people will inevitably consume alcohol; it’s human nature to seek mind-altering substances on occasion. Forbidding alcohol simply does not have the desired effect on minors. So to my fellow University students, I have some advice: be safe and try not to binge drink to the point where alcohol can become incredibly dangerous. Rather, from time to time, enjoy a beer while you study or with a meal. Learn to enjoy the taste and the effects of alcohol more subtly. And most importantly, don’t do anything too stupid under the influence.

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