Colleges Look to Cut Back on the Booze

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Newsflash: Parents of college students say getting wasted on alcohol is bad! 95% believe excessive alcohol consumption is a serious threat to their children, and 85% say having alcohol easily available at college campuses contributes to too much drinking. Wow.

Such were the headline findings of a survey released last week by the American Medical Association. "The majority no longer perceive college binge drinking as a right of passage," declared J. Edward Hill, chair-elect of the AMA. "They see it as a major public health threat." But was there really a time when parents liked knowing their college freshmen were getting shloshed twice a week?

Beneath the less-than-shocking survey results, however, there is real news here: thanks to an effort launched by the AMA and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, some colleges are radically rethinking their approach to alcohol control. The University of Colorado at Boulder (ranked fifth on Princeton Review’s list of top party schools) has banned beer sales in its football stadium. Florida State University (ranked fourth) has banned alcohol advertising on campus and notifies parents when their children break campus alcohol policy. The University of Wisconsin (ranked ninth) actually sits in on its town’s liquor licensing decisions, ensuring that bars near campus don’t promote drink specials and offer occasional alcohol-free evenings. Wisconsin also gave up more than $500,000 a year in alcohol revenues by banning beer sales in its new hockey arena.

Binge drinking hurts people, not just the drinker, but her peers and the community, as well
The theory is that alcohol control, like the regulation of tobacco, can no longer be treated as simply a matter of individual responsibility. Says Richard Yoast, director of the AMA Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse: "Trying to convince students not to binge drink doesn’t work, particularly when they’re surrounded by powerful social influences encouraging them to do just that. Every night they are lured by cheap drink specials. Couple that with easy access to alcohol, and glamorous, fun, sex-filled advertising imagery, and you have a very appealing message." Change the environment, argues Yoast, and you’ll reduce alcohol abuse.

It wasn’t long ago when colleges looked the other way when students with blood- shot eyes wearing last night’s clothes slumped into the back row of the lecture hall. As long as the drunkards weren’t hurting their peers, or the community, there was no perceived problem. That all changed in 1993, when researchers at Harvard separated plain old drinking (which by itself most don’t see as harmful) from binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more drinks in one sitting. The Harvard study had two key findings: first, binge drinking is hugely common, with 44% of college students admitting to bingeing at least once in the previous two weeks. Second, that binge drinking hurts people, not just the drinker, but her peers and the community as well.

So colleges began to recognize binge drinking was a problem they had to face. (And everybody took notice recently when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paid a $6 million settlement to the family of a student who died of alcohol poisoning). And now, thanks to the AMA initiative, communities are beginning to get involved, too. They see tax dollars being spent on sanitation workers cleaning vomit off the streets, hospitals giving emergency care to scores of students after every fraternity rush, police officers investigating drinking-related cases of vandalism and sexual assault.

The AMA’s goal, says spokeswoman Lisa Erk, "is systemic social change." This means forming a partnership between colleges and their communties to get bars off campus, halt two-for-one drink specials and increase alcohol-free social options. Students, of course, will complain (at Wisconsin the chancellor is sometimes called the "booze cop"). And so might townspeople: why can’t a responsible drinker enjoy a beer or two at the football game, or get a discount for stopping by at happy hour? That's what happens when you craft policy to deal with the worst offenders. The innocents have to sacrifice. If these changes work (the jury is still out), it will be hard to argue that such sacrifices aren't worth it.