Underage drinking is a problem that shouldn’t be hard to curb, since it’s illegal for most college-aged students to drink. Yet, the national rate of student alcohol abuse has remained unchanged for the last 30 years.
“Alcohol is the biggest public health problem on college campuses across the country,” said Dr. David McBride, director of Student Health Services at Boston University.
As schools continue to crack down on student drinking, they’re finding that they need new tools and methods to keep freshman, juniors and sophomores away from damaging drinking behaviors and from off-campus access to alcohol.
Close to 40 percent of 2010 college students engaged in high-risk drinking behaviors, such as drinking to excess and binge drinking. Full-time college students aged 18-22 are more likely to drink than peers who are not full-time students.
Almost 2000 college students die annually from alcohol-related causes, and an estimated 600,000 are injured while under the influence.
High-risk drinking has a secondhand effect. Schools with higher rates of binge-drinking report more disruption of sleep and study, and increased rates of verbal, physical, and sexual violence.
Binge drinking, defined as five alcoholic drinks for men, or four for women in a two hour period, is still not a well-recognized health problem.
“Drinking to get drunk is an important problem, and often it’s treated as a joke and a rite of passage. I think that needs to change,” said Naimi.
Working together to combat binge drinking
In May, 32 colleges and universities joined an alliance to address high-risk drinking, the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, headed by Dartmouth. This coalition, the first of it’s kind, hopes that by sharing data, outcomes and strategies to combat student drinking, they will learn more than from their previous individual efforts.
“We are hoping that with we can find lightning in a bottle, “ said Justin Anderson, Director of Media Relations for Dartmouth, “by bringing together that many different schools we can have that many solutions.”
Schools will participate in three phases of the project 18-month project. Phase one emphasizes individual drinkers, the second phase focuses on their environment, and phase three studies how individuals and the environment relate to each in terms of harm reduction.
Boston University – Boston, Massachusetts
Boston University joined the Learning Collaborative in order to strengthen existing efforts to reduce harmful drinking in its students, and will participate in a meeting in January next year discussing the methods used for individual intervention.
“The concern in terms of harmful and hazardous drinking [at Boston University] tends to be off-campus parties,” said Dr. Tibor P. A. Palfai, one of the experts on BU’s learning collaborative panel.
Seventy-six percent of Boston University’s undergraduate population lives on campus, where resident assistants and security keep a close eye on students. Therefore, drinkers must leave campus in search of house parties or establishments providing alcohol. Boston University has increased alcohol enforcement patrols in known party neighborhoods since September 1, such as in the Allston-Brighton area.
This effort is based on research indicating strict enforcement procedures are very effective in reducing the number of off-campus parties and the rate of binge drinking.
One preferred destination for would-be drinkers is an area near Boston University’s west campus called the GAP, bordered by Gardner Street – Ashford Street – and Pratt Street neighborhoods.
“This area has always been a problem with students, because of the proximity to BU,” said Boston Police Department Community Services Officer Frank Hughes.
“It’s… at that point where a neighborhood gets to have so many kids it just continues that way,” added Officer Hughes.
Boston University Police and Boston and Brookline police have cooperated to crack down on alcohol related violations in these areas. Their patrols focus on public intoxication, breaking up loud parties, and monitoring underage drinking. Local establishments are being strongly encouraged not to serve or sell alcohol to minors.
More important than enforcement is the weekly publication of alcohol related citations and arrests from the prior weekend in BU Today. Publishing this data makes students, especially incoming freshmen, immediately aware that they are being watched.
So far, stricter enforcement has not decreased the number of alcohol related citations in the GAP. Officer Hughes cited 63 alcohol related summonses to court issued to Boston University students (mostly freshmen). Hughes estimates that this number is almost double last year’s.
Boston University Police couldn’t be reached for comment on alcohol enforcement data collected this semester.
Some Boston university students feel that an increase in enforcement and punishment only drives alcohol abuse further underground, according to Yi Wu.
Wu is the treasurer of Students for Sustainable Drug Policy, a student group that emphasizes the need for drug and alcohol policies that reduce harm to students without persecuting them. Wu, though not a drinker, has participated in town hall meetings with Boston University’s Alcohol Task Force where health officials, administrators, researchers and students openly discuss their concerns about binge drinking.
“Ongoing discussion is our goal, the idea of a town hall is a starting point – not an end point,” said Wu.
Changing the conversation
Incoming freshmen tend to drink the most in the first few weeks on campus, when a lack of academic responsibility mixes badly with an expectation of wild partying.
Boston University took new preventative measures this year to minimize this traditional spike in alcohol abuse.
Last year 250 Boston University students were hospitalized for intoxication.
For the first time, rising freshmen and their parents were sent a letter with that statistic, as well as the university’s drug and alcohol policy. President Brown asked parents to talk to their students about dangerous drinking behaviors.
Shortly after the semester began, the same students were encouraged to take the “iHealth” survey online, which gathers information about student drinking habits anonymously and gives feedback on how they compare to social “norms”.
“Simply telling [students] that drinking has these negative effects and not to do it isn’t effective,” said Dr. Palfai.
“The approach now, is to allow [students] to see what typical drinking is and make decisions based on that…this is how your drinking profile stacks up against the risks,” continued Dr. Palfai.
Bystander intervention, or Good Samaritan practices are being encouraged at Boston University, based on their effectiveness at other schools.
Students can call an anonymous tip line to report a dangerous situation involving alcohol or other substances. As long as the student attends any recommended education or counseling programs, won’t be penalized.
As the next phase of the learning coalition begins, it remains to be seen if data gathered from Boston University and other schools in the coalition will be useful to the participants.
Is Boston University doing enough?
“I think given their ability, the amount of manpower they have, they are doing the best they can,” said Officer Hughes “I think everyone tries as best they can every year. The difference this year is that they’re trying a different tactic. “ he concluded earnestly.
Ultimately, changing the campus culture of binge drinking is a decision that is up to students.
Timothy S. Naimi, MD, MPH
Associate professor of medicine at Boston University
Alcohol epidemiology, binge drinking, underage drinking, alcohol control policies
Office of Public Affairs – Director of Media Relations – Dartmouth
Tibor P. A. Palfai, PhD
Associate Professor BU Psychology (one of the experts on the coalition panel for BU)
Community Coordinator – Allston-Brighton Substance Abuse Task Force
St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center – Steward Health Care
Associate Dean of Students – Boston University
Dr. David McBride – email interview
Director, Student Health Services Boston University
Elizabeth Douglas, LICSW – email interview
Coordinator for Alcohol and Other Drug Programs, Outreach and Treatment at BU
Students For Sensible Drug Policy – BU Chapter Treasurer
Undergraduate Student at BU
Officer Frank Hughes
Community Services Police Officer – Boston Police Department