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05/31/2017

Editorial: Ante Up: Publicized Personal Tragedies Raise the Stakes on Alcohol Policy

Economic, scientific and legal nitty-gritty needed to discuss excise taxes or heart health all point to the particular thorniness of alcohol policy. But the gruesome details of Timothy Piazza’s death in a hospital near Penn State University, following injuries sustained during a hazing-driven night of heavy drinking, cut a few levels deeper. Those details became public as national news when a grand jury ruled Piazza’s death “the direct result of encouraged reckless conduct” early this month.

Eighteen members of the now-banned Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity face criminal charges, including 8 for involuntary manslaughter. Responses to the specifics of this case and these charges reveal it as not just an indictment of 18 college students, but of hazing and fraternity culture itself. But it doesn’t stop there. “For anyone looking across the national landscape, you realize that we have a national problem that is associated with excessive drinking,” Penn State president Eric Barron said following the grand jury report. Barron’s comment reads as part deflection, part undeniable truth. College drinking rates across the US, including for binge drinking and other indicators of dangerous consumption patterns, remain stubbornly high.

Turn momentarily to Whiteclay, Nebraska, where state regulators recently stepped in, hoping to interrupt a generations-long pattern of excessive drinking by residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The choice by state regulators not to re-issue licenses for the town’s 4 beer stores does not necessarily seek justice for a torn family in the way the Centre County DA does in Pennsylvania. But it represents a similar attempt to take a step forward into a similar thicket.

Many share skepticism that either of these moves will be effective. “How do you help someone who doesn’t want your help?” asked the Rapid City Journal as it summed up thoughts of those faced with the day-to-day work of trying to help the alcohol-dependent residents who fueled the beer sales in Whiteclay for so long. It’s a similar struggle identified in a somewhat mystifying op-ed for the Bergen County Record, penned by the filmmaker of “HAZE: A Greek Tragedy.” The sometimes dangerous, even deadly tasks set out by fraternity hazing seem driven by basic human instincts, he argues: “Just joining a group isn’t enough. We have to feel that we earned it, that we went through a trial.”

The author, of course, has a dog in this fight, a movie to sell. But his recognition of the difficulty and somewhat timelessness of the issue is worth noting too. Screenings on campuses “have led to productive conversations,” but frat boys, it seems, will be frat boys and sometimes “walk out in protest.” Tactics taken on other complicated societal issues, about which folks may not wish to change their beliefs and may even feel attacked by the very suggestion of change (same-sex marriage and abortion come to mind) suggest a way forward. Changing minds on those issues often requires closer ties to individuals personally affected by them, one-on-one conversations: “interventions.” In other words, comments said offhand to a fellow-brother walking out of a movie screening (or typed into a comment-box below a national news story) may be a lot harder to say to the face of a grieving mother.

Making sure every fraternity pledge can speak one-on-one to that mother, let alone every college student to an affected community-member, gets expensive quickly. And folks in the public health community swat such plans away, preferring instead universal reforms and restrictions, but often focusing resources on easier-to-win local levels. With a national conversation once again swirling around unsafe alcohol consumption, can stronger advocacy, on a much larger scale, for the kinds of individual-based policies preferred by alcohol industry members create enough momentum to effect change?

Ear-marking taxes and very specific restrictions may be politically unpopular and of questionable effectiveness.  But shrugging off these stories as issues of personal responsibility seems insufficient at best and tone-deaf at worst. It also belies the net-positives of moderate drinking frequently touted when promoting both the tangible and intangible benefits the alcohol industry provides. Besides its economic impacts, responsible drinking can build community in immeasurable ways. Tim Piazza too sought community. “He craved the camaraderie” of fraternity life, The New York Times reported, summarizing the thoughts of his girlfriend; “he really wanted that brotherhood,” she told the paper. But is a brotherhood too “self-involved” to look after its brothers, as Piazza’s father described fraternity-members’ actions on the night they left his son lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs without calling for help, still a brotherhood? If community is what we seek and community is a benefit that drinking can provide, then surely the shared responsibility of looking out for every community member should underpin any successful alcohol policy. Anything else falls short.   AII invites reader response/comment on these very challenging issues.

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2017
  • Volume: 34
  • Issue #: 5
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