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Whose fault for drinking and dying?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 9:58 AM EST, Sun February 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: Alcohol kills tens of thousands of people a year
  • He says some blame Facebook for spreading word of a deadly drinking game
  • Bars also take the blame for people who consume too much alcohol and take risks, he says
  • Granderson: The problem is that we can't save everyone from themselves

Editor's note: LZ Granderson writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A senior writer for ESPN and lecturer at Northwestern University, the former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- A 36-year-old man goes out with some friends.

They hit a handful of bars.

The 36-year-old has some drinks.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

At the end of the night last May, as the last bar closes, he decides to slide down the railing of the stairs heading out. He loses his balance and falls backward.

Four stories.

He dies from a skull fracture.

His blood alcohol level was .25, more than four times the DUI threshold.

Tackling a dangerous drinking game craze

Who's responsible?

Before you answer that, let me tell you another story.

Last April, a man goes out drinking with friends to celebrate his 21st birthday.

He ends the night at the same bar the 36-year-old ended his last night at. As life would have it, he, too, decided to slide down the railing. He, too, lost his balance. He, too, fell back four stories. The death certificate stated "acute ethanol intoxication" played a role in his death.

In 2009 another partying 21-year-old fell to his death in that same stairwell.

Now who do you think is to blame, the bar or the patron?

Because the stairwell was up to code, I believe the fault lies with the patron.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission is going after the bar.

Last week at a state hearing, officials recommended suspending the liquor license for 10 days for the Grand Rapids, Michigan, four-story, 70,000-square-foot multi-venue entertainment hub affectionately known as The B.O.B. (short for Big Old Building). The punishment is for what officials believe is a culture of over-serving customers, which the bar says it has taken steps to avoid.

After the 36-year-old's death, many in the area went online to point an angry cyberfinger at the bar's owner for not making it safer for drunk people to slide down railings 40 feet in the air.

Anyone who questioned the decision of the deceased was deemed insensitive.

Much in the same way, some Chicagoans were upset there weren't more lifesavers along the city's river, after a drunk man hopped a fence, ignored the "park closed" signs, fell into the icy waters and died. Why did he venture out to the slick and slushy banks during what has become the coldest Chicago winter in 30 years? To retrieve a dropped cellphone that landed on a broken shard of ice. A friend he was with also died that night trying to save him.

These are all sad, tragic stories.

But they come with the territory.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933 because we the people wanted the freedom to drink. And as with all freedom there exists the burden of personal responsibility. We have age restrictions, we severely punish law breakers, we educate consumers and make public service announcements like "Drink Responsibly." Yet nearly 90,000 people still die from excessive drinking every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are we gonna do?

Go back to Prohibition -- because you know, the war on drugs is so successful? -- or recognize government can detour behavior but it can't legislate away stupid. Case in point: the Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality TV show about snake-handling in church who died last week from a snakebite.

So if you're the kind of person who thinks it's cool to drink large quantities of alcohol out of a toilet -- which one participant in the social media drinking game "Neknominate" was photographed doing -- I'm more prone to give you the side-eye than blame Facebook. Nonetheless, because at least five people have died playing the game, Facebook was compelled to issue a statement which read in part:

"We do not tolerate content which is directly harmful, for example bullying, but behavior which some people may find offensive or controversial is not always necessarily against our rules."

Which sounds reasonable to me but wasn't enough for Dr. Sarah Jarvis, a medical adviser for the UK-based charity Drinkaware. She said Facebook should remove the videos, noting "if the thrill wasn't there, your mates weren't seeing you, I expect it would very rapidly fizzle out."

She's right in that Neknominate -- a game in which players post video of themselves drinking a large amount of alcohol while doing something crazy and then challenge friends to outdo them -- may lose popularity in its current incarnation. But as the recent tragedies in small cities like Grand Rapids and large ones like Chicago point out, Neknominate isn't the issue.

The issue isn't alcohol.

The issue is us.

The issue isn't alcohol. The issue is us.
LZ Granderson

While I understand the desire to want to save everyone from themselves, I also understand that we can't. Alcohol is legal, and every year tens of millions of people consume without incident. And every year tens of thousands of people die of an alcohol-related death. Some as innocent victims, some because of addiction and some because of a bad decision. That's the deal we made back in 1933, and I doubt we'll go back.

One of the Neknominate participants drank alcohol mixed with motor oil.

Motor oil!

I refuse to make that Mark Zuckerberg's fault.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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