There’s a certain amount of irony inherent in many things we do—we do them even despite the fact we have a wealth of evidence suggesting they’re absolutely bad for us. Things like drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes have been proven to negatively affect brain cells and even cause cancer—and yet, we do them anyway. Walk into Brewski’s on a Thursday evening and experience it for yourself—this town loves beer and tobacco.
A recent study reported that in 2009, 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States were related to alcohol. The study goes on to suggest that the links between cancer and alcohol are less well known than, say, those between cancer and smoking. And therefore, more widespread dissemination of information on this issue may serve to more effectively eliminate an epidemic that already exists on college campuses everywhere—binge drinking.
But I think we already have a fascinating case study—smoking. According to the Center for Disease Control, as many as 20 percent of Americans smoke. Why do they do this? Don’t they know that little tobacco-filled piece of paper is accountable for one in every five deaths each year? And thanks to the fear appeal ads, don’t they know their son Daniel will probably have to wash their bodies every day for the rest of their bed-ridden lives? Yes. They know, and yet they do it anyway.
I fear this would be the very same case for cancer and alcoholic beverages. Tell students at a college campus that their beverage habits could eventually kill them, and perhaps you stop one drinker, for one week, because they both read your article and had an exam. But without a doubt, they will be back. Fear never works, and the future is in the future. Information is power, but not when it deals with things we have an unfortunately hard time letting go—much like beer and cigarettes. The only people who are going to be swayed by your “don’t drink if you don’t want cancer” campaign are those who already don’t drink. This is for the same reason that your dad actually enjoys watching Fox News—people love having their preconceptions confirmed. If a staunch anti-drinker hears another reason why drinking is bad, then he’ll likely to store it for the next time he needs to stand on his soapbox.
Once again, my friends, I have to make clear that I’m not coming out in favor of binge drinking or smoking lots of cigarettes. I’m simply calling into question, for the second week in a row, the culture of shame and of fear that surrounds these particular vices. It’s time we make a change, away from fear and shame, and towards true education. We need to get to kids at a young age, and present them not with photos of car crashes and blackened lungs, but with real statistics and information. In the same way that none of you refrained from having spring break sex after you saw a cauliflower in the sixth grade and were told you were surely going to grow one from your genitals, I can’t imagine you’ll quit going down to Dickson on a Friday and throwing back some brews just because you have a 3.5 percent chance of getting cancer someday.
Equally problematic is using colleges and universities as a target market for stopping what so many people call this “negative behavior.” Conventional psychology holds that people’s values systems are often relatively well set by the time they’re 18—except in the case of the college educated, whose system often changes as a result of their experiences with higher education, smarter people, and the trial and tribulations of living their own lives. You face a problem in wanting these students to stop—their biggest influencers are one another, and their beliefs and values are changing. The likelihood that you reach any of them with your scary advertisements and empty threats seems slim to none. If you want to stop people from doing something, and do so effectively, then you start early and you give them facts. By the time they’re 22, on Adderall, and have a test at 8:30, the threat of eternal damnation in a lake of fire and brimstone won’t stop them from a beer or a cigarette. So, if stopping the cycle is your ultimate aim, you’d better aim elsewhere, and you’d better start earlier. Does anyone want to buy me a beer? This article is stressing me out.