Where Student Drinking Passes


Even at $53 a person, the tickets for Oxford University's annual Fire Ball were all snapped up on the first day of sale. And why not?

The price included four bands, 20 DJs, magicians, jugglers, human statues, a barbecue dinner and--it was the biggest line on the poster-- unlimited alcohol .

The 1,200 ball-goers--men in black tie, women in long flowing gowns and elbow-length white gloves--moved happily from the champagne reception to the Smirnoff Bar to the Alcopops room to the 12 main bars, offering six brands of beer plus all the Vodka Bulls you could handle.

By 2 a.m., when the last bar closed, many of the students were unsteady on their feet, and some weren't on their feet at all.

But university officials recorded the Fire Ball as "uneventful," and the students who ran it agreed.

"One of my human statues got really drunk and couldn't stand still," said James Pattison, a third-year Oxford student who spent months planning the dance, held late last year. "So I'm not paying him. But most people here are 18 or 19, some are 20 or 21. By that age, people know how to drink."

In the United States, educators and legislators regularly announce new incentives and/or crackdowns to stop college students from drinking, as President Bush's twin daughters recently discovered at a college bar in Texas. "We see drinking as a huge issue, especially with the underage," said Monica Cloud of the National Assn. of Student Personnel Administrators.

But in Britain and much of Western Europe, student drinking is treated not as a problem but as a normal part of student life. "We treat our students as adults who run their own lives," explained Laurence Goldman, Oxford's assessor (roughly, dean of students). "It's not our place to ban drinking .... It would likely have the wrong results if we tried."

Several ball-goers said they felt sympathy for their fellow students in America. "I spent a summer at [the University of] New Mexico," said pre-law student Ned Greel, 20. "The whole alcohol scene there is so naff [ugly]. They drink as much as we do, but they have to go off in their cars where nobody can see them."

U.S. exchange students at the Fire Ball generally agreed.

"Of course students drink in America," said Jack Linahan, a junior at Williams College. "It's much saner here. It's sanctioned. Nobody has to hide from the administration."

A major distinction, U.S. and British educators agree, is the legal situation. Every U.S. state now bans drinking until the age of 21.

European countries set the drinking age at 18 or younger.

Beyond that, though, there's a fundamental difference in attitude. Americans seem quicker than people on this side of the Atlantic to describe a drinking situation as a problem.

British universities say they rarely encounter "binge drinking" among students, while the phenomenon is considered widespread in the United States. This is not because British students drink less; it's a difference of definition. The U.S. standard for "binge drinking," established by the Harvard School of Public Health, is "five drinks in a row for men or four for women." In Britain, it's defined as "staying drunk for several days at a time."

The tough attitude toward student drinking in the United States has been driven in part by pressure from the interest group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

MADD has a sister organization in Britain, Campaign Against Drink-Driving, or CADD.

But CADD is far more accepting of teen drinking than its U.S. counterpart.

"We think 18 is old enough to drink," says Maria Cape, who joined CADD when her daughter was killed by a drunken adult driver. "Most young people are really very responsible about drinking and driving."

At Oxford, "nobody drives home from the Fire Ball," said Pattison, the student who ran the dance. "You'd have to be crazy to drive after a night like this. Oxford students aren't that crazy."

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