Marines’ attack on binge drinking may backfire


The Marines may be about to shoot themselves in the foot.

In a well-meaning attempt to reduce binge drinking, Lt. Gen. R.E. Milstead Jr. ordered random Breathalyzer tests at Marine bases. In Washington and most other states, it takes a reading of 0.08 percent to be considered drunk. However, any Marine or sailor who tests positive at 0.01 percent or higher will be referred to Substance Abuse Counseling Centers. Those who test 0.04 percent or higher will be referred to medical personnel to determine his or her fitness for duty.

Whoa, there. Back up the boat. One drink can lead to a positive test of 0.01. The last time we looked these military personnel were 18 years old or older. If they are older than 21 it is legal — and when not done to excess, it’s healthy — to have a drink.

There is no question that binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks at one event, is a problem in the military and in the civilian population. A study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine found binge drinking among military personnel in all branches increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 47 percent in 2008.

For comparison, the Centers for Disease Control reported 36 percent of college students admitted to binge drinking in 2011. It estimated that 38 million Americans, approximately 17 percent of the population, participated in binge drinking four times a month. It ranges from 10.9 percent in Utah to 25.6 percent in Wisconsin.

It is not surprising military personnel overindulge at a higher rate than the rest of society. Especially considering during 2008, the latest figures available for the military, troops were battling in wars overseas, dealing with the financial crises created by the recession and/or self-medicating with alcohol due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The authors of the military report called for better leadership from the top in curbing excess drinking and routine screening for excessive alcohol consumption.

No one was suggesting a prohibition-era approach to turn troops into teetotalers. The gung-ho response from the top brass is sure to backfire. Being ordered into counseling for having one drink will destroy morale and overload the counseling services to the point they won’t be able to take care of those who truly need help.

When orders, rules or laws are deemed too oppressive, there is a backlash that actually works against the goal, no matter how laudatory it may be.

It’s appropriate to educate military personnel on the consequences of excessive drinking and offer them help to quit or cut back if they need it. Save the heavy artillery for those who regularly don’t know when to say when.


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