Extreme drinking culture the problem

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The problem isn't exclusively about a Bradley University junior mortally pushed into traffic by a friend who had been drinking.

The problem isn't exclusively about a pair of Bradley basketball players getting in trouble for underage drinking.

The problem isn't exclusively about a Bradley soccer player dying in a fire sparked by four college students who had been drinking.

The problem isn't exclusively Bradley.

The problem isn't exclusively students.

The problem is our culture, one that accepts excessive drinking as an unavoidable rite of young people.

Bradley is in the middle of crafting a new alcohol action plan. It comes at a time when campuses face new challenges in student imbibing.

Studies by Dr. Aaron White of the Duke University Medical Center include an eye-opener from 2006.

For the past 15 years, colleges have seen a leveling of binge drinking, defined as five drinks for males and four drinks for females at any one time. About 45 percent of college students are binge drinkers.

White says binge drinking is problematic - increased absenteeism, lower grades - but the effects typically aren't devastating.

"You don't see 45 percent of college students dying or destroying their cars every weekend," White says.

The bigger, growing trouble lies at the focus of his study: extreme drinking. During a two-week survey of college students, one in five men reported guzzling 10 or more drinks at one time, while 8 percent reported 15 or more drinks. At the same time, one in 10 women reported drinking eight or more drinks at one time, while 2 percent had 12 or more drinks.

"I think a lot of the damage you see on college campuses you see coming from that category," White says. " ...You have this subset (of college students) drinking themselves into oblivion."

Alcohol kills 1,700 students annually. College drinking also causes 600,000 injuries and 97,000 sexual assaults a year, all according to the National Institutes of Health.

Extreme drinking is a new field of study, so researchers have no hard numbers of yesteryear for comparison. But White says every indication shows students headed in two ways: toward little or no drinking, or more extreme drinking.

"We're seeing a migration to the poles," he says.

White has several theories for the explosion in extreme drinking. For one, sports - college and pro - are rife with alcohol commercials. Not only do young people get the message that liquor is fun, but they tie the competition of sports to competition in drinking, White says.

Meanwhile, college-theme movies continue to glorify "Animal House" themes. And our culture has embraced "extreme" as the ideal in much entertainment, including sports, video games and reality shows.

"You got a lot of students who think the way you drink is, you do it as far as you can," White says.

Meanwhile, as a sad bonus, more females are drinking to binge and extreme levels, White says.

"I think it's an issue of equality," he says. "If you're equal to males, you should drink like males."

What to do? Certainly, students bear responsibility for putting a bottle to their lips

- and whatever happens afterward. Still, to a large degree, young people are reflecting the society in which they grew up.

"The culture has to age out of this," White says.

There are signs that's happening. For example, as for those students choosing little or no drinking, White says science likely played a part. Parents now know that alcohol damages brain development in adolescents, a fact unknown decades ago. So more parents are less likely to wink at teenage drinking.

As for parents and young people who ignore those warnings, colleges can help stem boozing - at least, a little. White developed a program (used for more than 1 million freshmen) that explicitly spells out alcohol's dangers. That might sound simplistic, but he says the program has helped slow (though not eliminate) freshmen booze intake. Some colleges start those programs while prospective freshmen are still in high school - and make the parents come along, boosting anti-drinking pressure back at home.

But other tactics should be explored too, says Henry Wechsler, a retired Harvard University professor whose pioneering research coined the term "binge drinking."

"Address the supply side," he says. "I think you have to change the alcohol culture" at the community level.

Many campuses are surrounded by liquor stores and bars touting inexpensive alcohol. These promotions override student's views of entertainment options, he says.

"It might be cheaper to get drunk than go to a movie," he says.

Some campuses have worked with city governments to strong-arm alcohol outlets to tone down or eliminate advertisements of cheap booze. In turn, that has led to fewer alcohol problems on those campuses, Wechsler says.

"Make them an offer they can't refuse," Wechsler says. "Be tough. Universities are powerful."

The community can pitch in, vowing to stop frequenting businesses that hype cheap booze. If that sounds like pie-in-the-sky thinking, Wechsler points out that anti-smoking advocates have come a long way in what years ago seemed like an impossible battle.

As for Bradley's action plan? I couldn't find anyone to talk about it Monday. But the document is supposed to be finished by the end of the week, with changes instituted by next fall.

Think it's a waste of time? That kids will be kids?

That's dangerous thinking. That's defeatist thinking. That's the kind of thinking that keeps sending college students to county jails and early graves.

We should eagerly look forward to see what Bradley has to offer.

source: Journal Star


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