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On Smoke, Substances, And Sex

Guest Column

Walter Oney

I knew vastly more at age 18 about life than I know now at age 50. Or at least I thought I did. During rush week of 1964, someone gave me my first beer along with a bunch of advice. Not long afterward, lured by a mental image from book jackets and movies, I started smoking. Surviving these experiments without immediately demonstrable ill effects persuaded me that most, maybe all, of the adult advice I'd been getting was bogus.

It turns out that not everything your parents told you is wrong. They probably just didn't differentiate between the things that will really ruin your life (like drinking and driving), things you'll regret later on (like a hangover), and things that will annoy them if you persist (like vomiting on their couch). This column is my modest attempt to set the record straight on the parental advice you've gotten so far.

Drinking: Alcohol is only bad for you if you're an alcoholic, if you do something really stupid as a result of drinking, or if you try to breathe alcohol instead of air. You might as well know, as most of you already suspect, that 90 percent of people can use alcohol safely. The main reason adults told you not to drink is that you lack the experience and judgment necessary to avoid doing something dumb or fatal while under the influence.

Don't forget, like the Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers at Louisiana State University did, that you can overdose on alcohol. Chugging a pint of whiskey isn't significantly safer than jumping off the Green Building.

Ten percent of people are alcoholic and can't drink safely. Alcoholism has a genetic component which causes liver enzymes to incompletely metabolize ethanol, with the result that an alcoholic doesn't stop drinking. Never mind saying he or she can't stop drinking; the fact is that he or she never stops until running out or passing out. If one of your parents drank to excess, chances are that you will too.

Smoking: Smoking isn't bad; it's just stupid. One third of people who smoke cigarettes will develop serious illnesses later in life as a result. I suspect that all smokers will experience some reduction in quality of life, ranging from chronic shortness of breath to disgusting yellow films on the windows. We're talking statistics here, so your mileage may vary. Some people smoke all their lives without having any problems. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones.

If you smoke to rebel against all the adults who are telling you not to, you should probably know that a different group of adults want you to smoke. The corporate message is just more subtle. If you're confused about who to believe, ask yourself who has something to gain if you spend a few dollars a day for the rest of your life. Nicotine is so addictive that you will almost certainly have trouble quitting. Trust me on this: It will never be any easier than today, and any urge you may have to postpone quitting is just the nicotine talking.

Drugs: Drugs are things you take when you're sick in order to get better. You can ruin your life taking them for any other reason. Since that's a medical prediction, probabilities are involved again. The criminal infrastructure that exists in order to produce, import, and distribute illegal drugs threatens to destroy our culture. If you think legalizing drugs will solve the problem, visit Amsterdam: crime and lost souls are very much in evidence there.

Suicide: By definition, killing yourself can't ruin your life because there isn't anything left to ruin. But it sure ruins a lot of days for all the people you don't think care about you but really do. One of my best friends jumped off the Harvard Bridge onto the ice during an especially cold winter in the 60s. He later decided that life wasn't hopeless, but he's been living with a damaged spine ever since.

Sex: Unprotected sex can ruin your life quickly enough for you to notice. Don't be stupid about it. Use a condom, and don't trust your life to anyone's claim that "you're the first." A baby will seriously constrain your ability to study and commence a career.

Lastly, don't bother giving advice: They don't listen anyway.

Walter Oney graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1968.