Six months ago Scott Krueger, a freshman from Orchard Park, died needlessly and tragically in the Phi Gamma Delta house at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite shock and sorrow here, few of us expected that his story would cause nationwide outrage and debate.
After all, we know that his was only one of hundreds of alcohol-poisoning deaths that occur each year in the United States. Most go unreported, and rarely does one become a national story. But Krueger's story somehow served notice to a nation that our attitudes toward drinking need drastic revision.
His death, it can't be stressed enough, was no freak accident. A few weeks earlier, Benjamin Wynne, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge at Louisiana State University, died, too. His blood-alcohol concentration was .59; Krueger's was .41. Those are unbelievably -- insanely -- high levels of intoxication. There were other deaths and near-deaths on other campuses this academic year.
When blood-alcohol levels are reported, they invariably are reduced to multiples of the DWI threshold. But neither Krueger nor Wynnne was driving. They died solely from drinking.
Isn't it time we all recognized that these little blood-alcohol level numbers are not some legalistic mumbo-jumbo? They reflect limits at which life functions cease. Just under half a percent of alcohol in the blood (.45) is fatal to 99 percent of the population, despite acquired tolerance. Late-stage alcoholics seldom show up with BACs much over .40.
The most disturbing data indicate young people, especially college students, are routinely drinking to potentially lethal BAC levels. These are not, for the most part, seasoned drinkers or alcohol-dependents. They quaff recklessly out of bravado, in the mistaken idea, reinforced by thousands of beer commercials, that alcohol is the emblem of adulthood and a Concorde ticket to a good time.
More ominously, it's unlikely that drinking to such excess is entirely voluntary. Krueger had confided to his sister that he was apprehensive because of rumors that pledges were "forced" to ingest massive amounts of alcohol. This stands to reason, because most people become ill or pass out long before reaching morbid levels unless an element of coercion comes into play.
The Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland charges that fraternity and sorority leaders are "setting norms of heavy drinking and behavioral loss of control" on campus. Its study shows that weekly alcohol intake rises with fraternal involvement and leaders party the hardest -- at an average of more than 14 drinks per week (not incidentally, the level at which "heavy" drinking statistically begins).
And students choosing to live the Greek lifestyle not only drank more than the student body at large but experienced far more troublesome aftermaths.
Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that almost half the student body at the University of Illinois at Carbondale experienced "violent aggression," largely due to alcohol. It was also a "factor in most rapes (79 percent)."
Of late, there has been a panic about "date rape" drugs. A new study at the University of Mississippi turned them up in a minuscule fraction of victims, but it found plenty of alcohol.
Plainly, alarms should be sounding about alcohol-dependent rites of passage -- bacchanals. Every culture erects a wall of traditions, rituals and laws designed to keep our enjoyment of a powerful drug in check. True, many of those boundaries seem old-hat and toothless, and what remain are effectively neutralized by anti-rituals, like our four wintry booze-blasts: New Year's Eve, Super Bowl Sunday, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day.
And hazing. But it's all too easy to lay blame on sororities and fraternities when they only reflect a double standard most of us endorse.
Our ongoing debate over the place alcohol should occupy in our society is a messy, love-hate wrangle. In the midst of it we've lost sight of the essential fact that alcohol can kill -- and kill not just alcoholics or victims of highway crashes. And, when it doesn't kill outright, it leaves in its wake a hard rain of consequences, from horrible hangovers to reckless and criminal acts.
The media spotlight may be shifting back toward our culture's drug of choice. Over this past half-year, television and the press offered deeper examinations of the realities of our substance-abuse problem, not just sensational crack-house busts. Anticipation of the currently running public-television series "Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home" has helped to kindle this long-overdue debate.
If we engage in it, maybe we can save some lives.
BILL MACVICAR is coordinator of public education at the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.