Drinking: When Will They Ever Learn?

WHEN I spent the summer of 1954 on what my bosses called a ``drinking project,'' I found people all over the United States still on a post-Prohibition binge. I visited every region, but I found little awareness that drinking was a problem.

Whether it was young people at a debut party in New Orleans, Indians on a reservation in New Mexico, or people in their homes: Everyone seemed to be celebrating this freedom from Prohibition a generation after that experiment had ended.

The above is, of course, a generalization. There were plenty of people still practicing temperance. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was still of considerable influence. But my lasting impression of the reporting trip was of a society that was worse off because of the end of Prohibition - a point of view that ran fully in conflict with prevailing wisdom.

I have found little to corroborate my findings of 40 years ago until recently when columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote of the success of the campaign against smoking: ``There has been no public health success like it since Prohibition. Yes, Prohibition: It was a law enforcement disaster but a public health triumph. The decline it caused in cirrhosis and alcoholic psychosis was dramatic. And alcohol consumption did not reach pre-Prohibition levels again until 1971.''

Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who deserves plaudits for her tough antismoking stand, should note this alarming rise in the use of alcohol when she tells us we should consider legalization of drugs. I'm afraid she's accepting the view of Prohibition as a disaster, a view perpetuated by the liquor industry.

Here is Mr. Krauthammer again, noting the campaign against smoking: ``Why not go after alcohol with similar vigor? TV sports, for example, are one long paean to the glories of drink, interrupted by the occasional forward pass or double play. It is a scandal that teens and preteens should learn to want beer while watching baseball on TV.''

He reminds me that the real scandal by the mid-1950s was centered in Hollywood, where film after film showed leading men and ladies sipping cocktails and smoking. On my trip I spent time in Hollywood trying to find out who was behind the films that were turning youngsters into drinkers and smokers.

I talked to half a dozen of those who were supposed to be in control of Hollywood ethics. They were polite and attentive. But they all said that these movies reflected the habits and mores of Americans. They heatedly denied that in any way they were causing Americans to want to drink and smoke by watching their favorite movie stars indulging in these habits.

I visited a dozen college campuses and found that without exception drinking was on the upswing. But in talking to college pastors on my trip I found that most of them were no longer calling drinking an act that was wrong. Instead, they were substituting the words ``not wise.''

I have no way of knowing whether a stronger dose of moral restraint would have been any more persuasive than the ``not wise'' counsel to America's students - although it is my firm opinion that a strong moral message had been quite effective. I do know that by the 1970s drinking had become the principal problem on US campuses. And now the Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has issued a report that shows ``binge drinking is the No. 1 substance-abuse problem in American college life,'' far outweighing the use of drugs.

Krauthammer points out that alcohol has short-term consequences - traffic deaths, domestic violence - that tobacco is free of. ``And,'' he adds, ``its long-range consequences are devastating: $13 billion in direct medical costs, $37 billion in lost productivity, more than 100,000 premature deaths every year.''

As the 1960s protest song, ``Where Have All the Flowers Gone,'' says, ``When will they ever learn?''

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