IT'S spring break and the beer is flowing here in the Sunshine State. College students - known as "breakers" by the locals - hit Florida like a hurricane every year around this time. They're looking for sand, sun, and fun. For many, the fun doesn't start until there's a cold can of beer in hand. The recent arrest of 11 University of Virginia students on charges of selling and distributing marijuana and other illegal substances grabbed the headlines, but the drug of choice for most of today's college students is alcohol.
On the white sand of Fort Myers beach, the spring-break action is in full swing. The "Pro Beach Volleyball Tour"- sponsored by the Miller Brewing Company - is here with its own entourage of professional spring breakers. These athletes travel the world's beaches playing volleyball in the sand.
Miller Lite signs cover every available space, and the whole scene looks like a long-running beer commercial.
For the past decade, illegal drug use among young adults has been declining, according to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, which conducts an annual survey. The survey also reports a slight decrease in alcohol use.
Nonetheless, American college students consume 430 million gallons - or 4 billion cans - of beer each year.
That's enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool for every college in the United States, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Here on Fort Myers beach, the midafternoon "Miss Miller Lite Beauty Contest" provides a window into the contemporary American psyche.
In the tense minutes before the bikini-clad contestants parade across an open-air stage, the emcee asks, "Are there any military men just returned from Saudi Arabia out there?" When several servicemen identify themselves, the crowd breaks into enthusiastic applause.
Once the throngs of people quiet down again, the girls come out one by one, stepping up to the microphone to charm the crowd. The tannest one of the bunch is a college student at the University of Minneapolis, just down for spring break. "How'd you get such a great tan?" quips the emcee.
"I went to the booth," she confesses. The crowd boos. Tanning salons must be passe.
While the hordes of young people that hit Florida every spring break may be good for the economy, not everybody here appreciates the state's popularity with this clan of party animals.
Several years ago Fort Lauderdale's mayor went on nationwide television urging students to go somewhere else for their break. Since then things have slowed down a bit in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, they've become a bit too sluggish for some local businessmen.
Don Meyer, who runs a concierge service in three area hotels, put together a 16-page pamphlet titled "Spring Break 1991 Magazine, Welcome Back." He mailed the promotional material to 350 colleges in 31 states.
But not all college students are convinced that drinking beer in the sun is the way to spend their spring break.
A number of students from the University of Pennsylvania spent their vacation in poverty-stricken north Philadelphia rebuilding low-income homes.
Students from Vanderbilt University tutored Guatemalan refugees and Mayan Indians in Indiantown, Fla., while others cleaned up the streets of Nashville.
Forty-three students from Saint Michael's College in Vermont helped battered and homeless women in Washington, built homes for the needy in Alabama, and worked in soup kitchens in New York.
It's likely the good they did will last longer than a Florida tan.