Alcohol and Culture: Hazing as a US Institution
“13% of students are involved in Greek life across campus,” Boston University tour guides spout when they stop at the Greek Rock. Greek life — fraternities and sororities — are critical for the social scene across Boston University and nearly every other American college campus. However, these organizations have a dark side: hazing. This article examines American drinking culture, why fraternity rituals are so deadly and what can be done to prevent future tragic deaths, like that of Maxwell Gruver at Louisiana State University.
At LSU, in 2017 Maxwell Gruver died the day after a fraternity ritual where he had to “take several three- to five-second chugs from a bottle of Diesel, a 190-proof liquor,” which resulted in his blood alcohol level reaching “0.495%.” In 2018, Louisiana enacted the Max Gruver Act, which creates legal penalties to address “criminal hazing.” In 2019, Mathew Naquin, the ringleader of the hazing ritual, was convicted of negligent homicide. Most recently, on March 13th, 2023, the parents of Max Gruver were awarded $6.1 million by a jury in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Since 1959 there has been at least one death a year from hazing across the United States, according to the Hank Nuwer Hazing Death Database, which goes back to 1838 when John Butler Groves of Franklin Seminary in Kentucky died in a hazing incident. Hazing deaths do not always come from alcohol poisoning. In 1873 Mortimer Leggett died “in a fall into a steep gorge” where he was “blindfolded…while on a walk in the dark.” However, according to the Hazing Death Database, nearly every year since 1991 a student has died from alcohol-related hazing.
To be fair, fraternities are not all bad, nor the only institutions to blame. Some fraternities create environments for socialization, community building and professional development, and don’t facilitate or engage in hazing at all. However, this article aims to critique American collegiate alcohol consumption as a whole: fraternities are a major space wherein underage students can get alcohol, and consumption can become dangerous, especially if students are not exposed to alcohol before they arrive at college.
American Drinking Culture
America has a strange history regarding alcohol consumption. In the 1920s, Prohibition was enacted into the Constitution as the 18th Amendment and remained the law of the land until 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed it. The drinking age for most states was 21 between the 1930s and the 1960s. With the 26th Amendment, the voting age fell to 18, and many states lowered the drinking age to match it. Because of this, there was an increase in drunk driving fatalities, and in 1986, Congress deemed the fatalities worthy of a public health crisis and created the “National Minimum Age Drinking Act” which “required states to raise their minimum age for purchasing and possessing alcoholic beverages to 21…[or] lose 10% of their federal highway funding.” It has remained that way ever since, but there is significant variation across the US concerning what is and is not illegal alcohol consumption.
For example, Massachusetts is one of the most difficult states to consume or purchase alcohol in, even if one is over 21. This is due to legislation that dates back to the Prohibition era — there are still eight dry towns across the state in which there are no liquor stores and no restaurants are permitted to sell alcohol. In addition, Happy Hours, or times when drinks are cheaper, are banned statewide.
UK Attitudes on Alcohol Consumption
American prohibition era rules and regulations do not foster positive relationships with alcohol for students arriving at college. Globally, attitudes to alcohol are much different. The US has one of the oldest drinking ages in the world at 21, while in a significant majority of other countries the drinking age is 18. Of course, the US is not the only country with hazing problems. Tragically, in the United Kingdom, Ed Farmer, Gavin Britton, Tom Ward and Alex Doji all died from hazing across universities between 2003 and 2016.
Yet across the US, hazing deaths occur much more frequently. According to the Nuwer database, there were 40 hazing deaths in the UK between 2007 and 2017, “with alcohol poisoning the leading cause of death.” The UK has a smaller population than the US, however, there may be something cultural that allows UK students to opt out of the more deadly hazing rituals. Could this be because of the lower drinking age? With more tolerance towards alcohol in the UK, students are more exposed to it earlier in life, and it becomes less of a commodity only available at certain institutions. Would lowering the drinking age have a deterrent effect on hazing rituals?
Can the US Support a Lower Drinking Age?
Simply put, no. The US lacks the infrastructure to support lower drinking ages across the country. The US is far more dependent on cars than public transportation. In major metropolitan cities like Boston and New York, where public transportation systems run late into the night, a drinking age of 18 could work, resulting in safer alcohol consumption for college-aged students. In addition, where safe ride programs were properly funded and implemented correctly, there were decreases in fatalities from drunk driving, especially around colleges. But in places where public transportation is not an option, cars fill in the gaps.
With the advent of Uber and Lift, there is more access to transportation that does not require the use of personal cars, but still, because of a lack of public transportation, lowering the drinking age is not feasible in the US. It would almost certainly lead to a higher risk of drunk driving, like in the 1970s and 1980s.
Instead, a complete re-evaluation of collegiate drinking culture across the country is fundamental to support young people and end hazing-related deaths. Additionally, public transportation systems that can serve more than major metropolitan areas and thus reduce the need for drunk driving would help make alcohol consumption safer and more sustainable for all Americans.