Expert Advises Joint Effort Against Campus Alcohol Abuse

A Harvard researcher says the recent spate of campus deaths attributed to binge drinking underscores a “long-standing, deeply entrenched problem” at America's colleges and universities.

Dr. Henry Wechsler, director of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) College Alcohol Studies Program, says universities are not doing enough to crack down on underage alcohol consumption and binge drinking on college campuses. In the past month, five US college students have drunk themselves to death, and Wechsler believes such incidents will continue to occur unless schools make some changes with the cooperation of the community.

For one thing, the Harvard researcher feels schools need to do a better job of teaching and raising students' awareness about the dangers of binge drinking. “One point in educating college students is around the issue that you can die of acute alcohol poisoning if you drink a very large amount of alcohol,” he says. “That is something that should be taught.”

And Wechsler, who is also a social psychology lecturer at HSPH, suggests that schools seek ways to address the “culture” of alcohol abuse on their campuses. Past studies indicate that very strong forces are continuing to support drinking at colleges and universities, and the drinking style on campus continues to be one of excess.

“There's a practice by some students of celebrating their 21st birthday with 21 drinks in a row,” the public health expert says, “and that's a lethal amount.” While he acknowledges that college students are responsible for their own decisions, he believes several factors contribute to the problem of binge drinking among college students, including an unhealthy relationship between colleges and the alcohol industry.

In his book, Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses (Rodale/August 2002), Wechsler notes that on some campuses, traditional parties, such as “Homecoming” events, provide alcohol to students. Also he reveals that many colleges accept money from the alcohol industry to fund campus programs, especially those involving athletic departments. And on a number of campuses, the author asserts, the school's alcohol awareness programs are in fact funded by the alcohol industry.

Although he definitely feels colleges could do more to address these issues, Wechsler points out that the effort of educators and administrators alone is not sufficient to tackle a problem this comprehensive. He says several years ago, when he did his first national survey on campus drinking, he came to a disturbing realization.

“I visited a number of college campuses, and I was struck by the presence of a large number of bars and liquor stores within a short distance of campus,” Wechsler says, “each competing with each other for customers.” And, the researcher adds, “the competition results in low-price specials, which make it possible to get drunk on a weekend for less money than it takes to go to a movie.”

To attack the over-availability problem, Wechsler suggests reducing the phenomenon of alcohol outlet density and eliminating low-price specials and sales, such as those that offer customers all they can drink for a fixed fee. However, he notes that the onus for such changes cannot rest with college administrators but must involve the community, where the alcohol is actually manufactured and sold.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol-related mishaps. In order to address these grave statistics and protect future students, Wechsler says a cooperative effort between the educational institutions and the community at large is essential.

(This article courtesy of Agape Press).

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