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A dangerous drink [Commentary]

As I listened to the conversation in the Maryland Senate regarding the bill to ban extremely high alcohol content beverages (SB-75), one argument said a ban would fail, and we should instead focus on educating our students. Well, incoming freshmen at Frostburg State University don't wait long before their education on the dangers of high-risk drinking begins. I start talking about it at the very first summer orientation session, and we keep telling parents and students about high-risk drinking and its consequences throughout.

We were one of the first colleges in the country to require students to complete — and pass — the online AlcoholEdu course, and now we start it before the semester begins. Those first weeks of college are shown to set their drinking habits for the rest of their college careers, or even the rest of their lives. The topic appears again in their required Introduction to Higher Education classes, where they hear from a man whose wife was killed when a drunken driver plowed through their bedroom wall. BURG, our award-winning student peer education network, offers programs throughout the year. Educational posters are everywhere, some humorous, some serious, with warnings ranging from the dangers of drinking mysterious concoctions — generally made with grain alcohol — to the social consequences of getting falling-down drunk. Our local bars post tips on low-risk drinking.

Frostburg freshmen can never claim they weren't educated about the dangers of high-risk drinking. And our data say that this approach does help, as our binge-drinking rate has fallen 24 percent over a six-year period. That puts us below the national average and that in Maryland.

But inevitably, here and at colleges everywhere, a student will follow a friend to an off-campus party and be handed a 12-ounce plastic cup of fruit punch spiked with inexpensive, 190-proof grain alcohol. They can drink it as fast as regular punch, since the nearly pure alcohol has no taste.

What they don't know is that they may have just ingested the equivalent of an entire six-pack of beer or five shots of liquor — or more, since people mixing booze in a trash can generally don't use measuring cups. By the time they reach the bottom of one or two cups of "Jungle Juice," as it's often called, they're already in serious danger, but it's too late to stop what is to come.

The lucky ones have friends who recognize the danger signs and call an ambulance. The less lucky ones may wake up in strange beds, the victims of sexual assault, or they may never wake up at all, left by less-aware friends to "sleep it off." Instead, in their unconscious stupor, they choke on their own vomit or their hearts just stop.

The Maryland General Assembly is considering a law to ban alcoholic beverages that are 190-proof or greater. That's 95 percent pure alcohol. The best-known brand names are Everclear and Gem Clear. By comparison, most vodka, whiskey or gin falls in the 80- to 100-proof range. It is also not the same as commercially available "moonshine," usually 80 to 130 proof.

The Senate has passed SB-75, and the House is now considering the companion bill, HB-359. Our neighboring states, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania along with numerous others already ban 190-proof alcohol.

Ultimately, the choice to drink alcohol belongs with the individual, but the very nature of these high-proof alcohols effectively takes away that choice. No one could miss the taste of whiskey (80 proof) in a drink. Flavors in wines (about 20 proof) and beers (about 10 proof) are described in tantalizing detail. With tasteless and odorless grain alcohol, however, a young person encountering these party beverages doesn't know if they're ingesting a teaspoon or 10 of pure liquor. That one lapse of judgment could be their last.

This is not a "slippery slope" campaign against alcohol. Prohibition is not returning. This is about preventing young people — many at an age when their brains are not fully developed — from unknowingly ingesting a product that can double as a cleaning solvent. When the label says the product is highly combustible, do we really want our children to consume this? Liquor stores and alcohol producers will still have plenty of products to sell, but it will require twice as much or more of those other products to get someone so drunk that they need to be hospitalized.

The biggest fears for college and university presidents are that something bad will happen to students. That is why the presidents represented in the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking are supporting this measure. If our students make mistakes, and we know they probably will, all we want is for them to live long enough to learn from them.

Jonathan Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University. His email is president@frostburg.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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