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In Late 90s, Harvard Moved Toward ‘No Tolerance’ Smoking and Drinking Policies

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Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III released a 16-clause statement outlining a strengthened alcohol policy on Oct. 22, 1997, leading to radical changes to Harvard’s alcohol and smoking rules in the late 1990s.

“We are moving towards a no tolerance posture,” Epps said in an interview at the time.

The policy called on student organizations to observe alcohol-related regulations; senior tutors, freshman deans, and house masters — now called faculty deans — to prevent underage drinking at Harvard functions; businesses to “be strict” in checking identification; and police to enforce alcohol-related laws.

The statement came after the alcohol-related deaths of two MIT students and claimed that “intoxication is associated with every form of adverse social behavior occurring at Harvard.”

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Smoking in all undergraduate houses was banned six months later in April 1998.

Still, the strengthened policies did not seem to leave a significant impression on the average Harvard undergraduate.

“Rather than being a complete reversal, it was more like turning the dial a little bit in the sense of slightly less drinking,” Ben J. Lima ’98 said.

Adam M. Kleinbaum ’98 remembered “frequent pronouncements” about reducing drinking on-campus and “some rules that prohibited hard alcohol.”

The changes in smoking rules may have left a deeper memory. Lima recalled a “continuous progression” towards less smoking in the United States.

“I remember my parents saying that when they were young, that smoke would just be everywhere, people would smoke anywhere and everywhere, which seemed strange to me,” he said.

Lima said he noticed smoking becoming increasingly “segregated to specific places” in his childhood, such as “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections in restaurants. Boston’s 1998 ban of smoking entirely in restaurants felt “new and unusual” to Lima.

“Smoking was definitely more common than it is now, but not very widely practiced. I definitely knew some people who smoked, but that was the exception more than the rule,” Kleinbaum said.

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Lewis, who was dean of the College from 1995 to 2003, said he did not “remember any such no tolerance” policy, but he emphasized that College restrictions were focused on preventing deaths.

“Those are the most horrible calls in the world to make,” he said. “I’m trying at all costs, to avoid, if possible, creating the circumstances where a tragedy like that can happen.”

Lewis said the issue of excessive drinking on campus was not apparent to him until he began receiving the reports as dean.

“I became aware of, and sensitized to, the problem of alcohol abuse, just when I started getting reports of numbers of students who were hospitalized over the weekends, taken by ambulance somewhere so they could be kept alive,” he said.

An incident involving a beer keg at one year’s Harvard-Yale football game led to a ban on kegs at tailgate events, Lewis recalled.

“A student was suffering from alcohol poisoning, and because the field where the tailgate was taking place was muddy, it was impossible for a rescue vehicle or EMT vehicle to reach it. It got stuck in the mud trying to get across the field to rescue that particular student,” Lewis said.

“People are less inclined to try, for whatever reason, to try to down a whole case of beer than they are to down a whole keg of beer,” he added.

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Still, drinking was common at several spots on campus. Among the most popular for undergraduates was the Crimson Sports Grille, which closed in 2001 after a string of alcohol violations. Some also enjoyed alcoholic scorpion bowls at the Hong Kong Restaurant.

Lima wrote that the “artsy crowd” favored smoking Dunhill cigarettes at the now-closed Cafe Pamplona “with a beret and a copy of Being and Nothingness or Being and Time, really anything with ‘Being’ in the title.”

Undergraduates often flocked to Pinocchio’s Pizza, affectionately called “Noch’s,” for greasy late-night fare after parties.

“The combination of Harvard Yard and Harvard Square and the houses is just a fantastic place to be an undergrad, that’s for sure,” Lima said.

Students also frequented the convenience store Louie’s Superette, whose owner was charged with selling alcohol to minors in 2004. Blanchard’s Liquors ended its room-delivery keg service after the alcohol-related 1997 death of an MIT student that sparked Harvard’s alcohol policy change.

Kleinbaum, a former Crimson News editor, said students drank “to enhance the good time” they were having in college and was mostly “good clean fun.”

“Not everybody drank but most people, I would say, probably did during college, and there wasn’t a whole lot of stigma attached to it,” Kleinbaun said.

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Some also found new, creative ways to libate. During the 1997-98 academic year, Lima and his roommates built, decorated, and opened a 21-plus, invitation-only bar in a spare room in their suite, Dunster House E-22.

“What happened was someone moved out, which means at the last minute, we had an extra space and we said, ‘What are we going to do with this extra space?’ and, ‘Let’s make it a place to throw parties and call it the Mask and Spear Pub,’” Lima said.

“I think it was pretty successful. But again, only because if we’d been really causing problems, I’m sure they would have shut it down,” he added.

Harvard’s drinking culture appeared to be more muted compared to other schools, according to Lima.

“Being Harvard, I think a significant number of undergrads abstained entirely, since both drinking and smoking could be seen as obstacles to maximum achievement in both academics and personal health,” he wrote in an email.

—Staff writer Austin H. Wang can be reached at austin.wang@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Tyler J.H. Ory can be reached at tyler.ory@thecrimson.com.

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