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Hillestad '15: Laissez-faire alcohol policy lacks educational aspect

There is a fundamental mismatch between Brown’s laissez-faire alcohol policy and the strict enforcement of rigid drinking laws that accompanies it. The former encourages experimentation by providing a generous safety net and removing any risk of disciplinary consequences. The latter, on the other hand, utilizes scare tactics that ultimately fail to educate us about the true effects of drugs and alcohol. While I commend Brown’s progressive drug policy, it can be dangerous without the proper educational background.

Unfortunately, American drug laws tend to encourage surreptitious alcohol use at a young age. We learn about alcohol in an unsafe environment, which, in turn, leads to irresponsible drinking habits. When we are subsequently placed in Brown’s drug-filled environment, where real consequences are relatively unheard of, the results can be disastrous.

I was lucky enough to grow up in Italy, where the drug laws are more sensible. In Italy, the drinking age is 18, and it is rarely enforced. Instead of strict prohibition, there is a high premium placed on education. This emphasizes safety over abstinence. Italians often drink a glass of wine with family dinners from a young age. They learn about alcohol in a safe environment surrounded by protections. This allows them to learn about the effects of alcohol and what their limits are before they leave home.

A comprehensive study led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher found that “young people allowed alcohol with meals when growing up were more likely to never (binge drink) or get drunk.” Enrico Tempesta, an Italian researcher, has said that in Italy, “children and teenagers disapprove and tend to exclude from their circle a contemporary who gets drunk.” This cultural phenomenon ultimately breeds safer drinking practices.

Despite the fact that underage Italians drink far more on average than underage Americans, the World Health Organization found that U.S. drinking patterns are more risky than those found in Italy. In fact, the WHO gave Italy the lowest score possible on a scale of 1 to 4, denoting its drinking practices as among the least dangerous.

Contrast this situation to the United States. Here, despite the fact that drinking under the age of 21 is illegal, approximately 22 percent of all American high schoolers have binge drunk in the past 30 days. About a quarter of high schoolers have ridden with a driver who had been drinking, which, along with other alcohol-related deaths, results in the deaths of more than 4,300 Americans under the age of 21 every year. All told, the death rate attributed to alcohol is about eight times higher in the United States than in Italy.

The difference lies in cultural norms and institutional policies. In both categories, the United States is lagging behind. In Italy, youth drinking is acceptable and done with the necessary oversight. In the United States, on the other hand, underage drinkers are forced to go behind their parents’ backs to drink. Alone and in the dark, they often have dangerous early experiences with alcohol. This causes them to begin to think that binge drinking is the norm — or maybe even cool.

Then they come to Brown, where they no longer have to worry about being secretive or careful with their illegal, irresponsible drinking habits. Emergency Medical Services are generally free of charge and come without any consequences. Brown police rarely enter dorms, making dorm rooms easy places to hold parties without concern about law enforcement. Local liquor stores allow fake IDs without a hassle — that is, if they card at all. Brown undeniably has a laissez-faire policy toward alcohol use.

Under circumstances like those in Italy, Brown’s liberal attitude toward drinking would be great. However, since students come to Brown without proper alcohol education, the ease with which Brown students can procure and drink alcohol is a major cause for concern. If first-years arrived sporting a safe and responsible history with alcohol, Brown’s policy would be ideal. Yet because American drug laws are often draconian and illogical, Brown’s policy can be immensely harmful.

Brown is decidedly ahead of the curve on its drug and alcohol policy. But American policies and cultural norms are undoubtedly backward. One or the other has to give. Since the potential for change is far greater at Brown than on a national scale, the duty to change unfortunately falls on us.

What kind of change does this entail? I will not — nor will I ever — recommend that Brown change its policies to be more like those at other universities, or like the unhealthful and unsafe drug policies that American high schoolers face. Rather, the answer lies in a revamped educational campaign. This will be no small task. We have years of misleading information and dangerous drinking habits to make up for. As such, a monumental effort to educate incoming Brown students should be of paramount importance.

Primarily, such a campaign would have to limit the harm perpetrated by the typical alcohol education in the United States. That education consists almost exclusively of advocating “abstinence only” through scare tactics of exaggeration. To pretend that abstinence is a legitimate option is to be ignorant about the facts of youth culture. Young Americans will always drink, so we have to find better ways to teach them how to drink responsibly. By grounding the educational campaign in reality, we can focus on dispensing information about pacing and equivalence between alcoholic beverages. Furthermore, a successful educational campaign would remove the social pressure to drink as much as possible, while also teaching effective ways to minimize the harm of potential alcohol abuse.

By utilizing a realistic education system, and by focusing it on incoming Brown students, we can begin to reverse some of the damage caused by the insufficiency of American alcohol education.

There is little we can do to fix harmful American drug and alcohol policies. What we can do, however, is adapt our own model to right the wrongs that incoming first-years have faced. In so doing, we can maintain our emphasis on freedom and safety while also correcting the unhealthful drinking habits and fallacious assumptions young Americans have toward drinking. While our current system is certainly praiseworthy, it is insufficient  given our national laws and culture. Until more sweeping change is brought about, we must do our part to fill in the gaps that arise from poor alcohol education.


Sam Hillestad ’15 can be reached at


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