Curbing College Drinking No Easy Task

Alcohol problems escalate despite prevention efforts

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HealthDay Reporter

SUNDAY, April 11, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Alcohol has been a part of college life almost as long as there has been such a thing as higher education. But it's only in the last decade that campus officials have tried to prevent the worst excesses.

Perhaps spring break, and all the student drinking that it unleashes, will convince them to try harder.

As studies documenting the problem continue to pile up, a growing number of administrators agree more action is necessary, but there's no consensus on how best to sway young drinkers.

Colleges and universities do try to change student behavior through ad campaigns and campus regulations, but critics don't think that's enough.

Alcohol, after all, is still served at countless football games and campus pubs, and liquor stores are rarely more than a few minutes walk from most dorm rooms. Meanwhile, new research suggests colleges haven't even done a good job of educating students about drinking in the first place.

"It's always progress when people recognize a problem. Now they really have to get serious about doing something about it," said Henry Wechsler, director of the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Studies Program.

Federal researchers have linked college drinking to at least 1,400 annual student deaths, 600,000 assaults of students and 500,000 accidental injuries.

Aaron White, an assistant research professor at Duke University who studies student drinking, said, "Half of all the Duke students surveyed have had at least one blackout and don't remember what they did. The things that students do range from vandalizing property to getting raped."

Administrators can no longer ignore the problem, Wechsler said. "There have been a lot of other actions, other reports, other studies and also tragedies reported in the newspapers of student deaths and serious injuries related to alcohol."

In a newly released report by the Harvard School of Public Health, college administrators surveyed in 2002 acknowledged the high levels of drinking on their campuses. Eighty-one percent of 747 administrators said student alcohol use was a problem on campus. That's a jump from 68 percent in 1999.

Despite various prevention efforts, levels of so-called "binge drinking" -- downing more than four or five drinks at a time -- haven't changed over the past decade. Some researchers think this may be because students drink more than they think.

For example, when Duke researchers asked students to pour the equivalent of one serving of beer, liquor or a cocktail, they poured as much as 80 percent more than the normal serving size. "When you ask a student how much they drink, the answer they give you is probably a dramatic underestimation," said White, who wrote about the findings in a recent study. "They might say they have one beer, but when they pour it's a beer and a half."

This is important, and not just because it throws off studies of how much students drink, White said. By misunderstanding how much they're consuming, students may drink much more than they intend to and, of course, get more drunk.

He said schools need to develop programs that do a better job of teaching students how to understand their drinking habits. "We have failed as educators, prevention specialists and universities to teach our kids what we mean when we say the word 'drink,' " White said.

For his part, Wechsler advocates extensive efforts aimed at reducing the availability of alcohol.

According to the new Harvard report, about a third of colleges surveyed ban all alcohol on campus, and 43 percent outlaw it in dorms. Colleges are also adopting controversial "social norm" campaigns, which try to convince students not to drink more than their peers.

But only 44 percent of colleges surveyed ban booze at at least four of the following events: home athletic contests, home tailgate events, home pre- or post-game parties, homecoming celebrations, on-campus dances or concerts, on-campus banquets or receptions and alumni events.

Predictably, the administrators who report the most serious alcohol problems on campus work at the schools with the most lenient restrictions, Wechsler added.

As for solutions, Wechsler said there has to be a "long-term concentrated effort" to cut down both the supply of alcohol and the demand. Schools can start by targeting liquor sellers and their price cuts, he said, and also by eliminating the drink discounts of "happy hour."

"It's cheaper now to get drunk on a weekend than to go to a movie," he said. "Putting up signs and posters and trying for quick fixes is not the way to (change things)."

More information

Learn more about binge drinking from the Harvard School of Public Health. The State University of New York at Potsdam also offers a fact sheet on binge drinking.

SOURCES: Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., director, Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Studies Program, Boston; Aaron M. White, Ph.D., assistant research professor, Department of Psychiatry, Duke University, Durham, N.C.

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