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Separating Sensible and Binge Drinking on College Campuses

What we need to teach students.

The primary long-term study of American college binge drinking, conducted since 1993 by Henry Wechsler, is called the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study.

The study is notable for its failure. At one point, confident of factors that could be brought to bear on college drinking, Wechsler and his colleagues created and studied campus-wide interventions to reduce bingeing. The results of the campus interventions? A small increase in abstinence was offset by increases in binge drinking—particularly intense binge drinking.

The cause of this fiasco is obvious: Wechsler's program and the campus interventions failed to distinguish between drinking at all and binge drinking.

Over the several decades of the Harvard study's existence, no one believes college binge drinking has been capped. Thus, writing this month about college drinking, New York Times health writer Jan Brody loaded the first half of her article with a depressing litany of statistics: "Binge drinking [is] a drinking pattern adopted by 44 percent of college students."

The consequences:

Car crashes and other accidental injuries, sexual assaults, fights, community violence, academic failure and deaths from an overdose of alcohol are among the consequences…

Every year, tens of thousands of college students wind up in emergency rooms suffering from the life-threatening effects of alcohol intoxication. And every year, about a dozen students, including some of the best and brightest and most athletically talented, die from acute alcohol poisoning. In one study of students who suffered alcohol-related injuries, 21 percent reported consuming eight or more drinks in a row.

That this behavior is so obviously related to binge drinking (which "about half of college binge drinkers arrive on campus having engaged in similar behavior in high school") has almost dawned on Wechsler, Brody, and other American-style blue noses.

Almost, but not quite. Referring to the recent Amethyst Initiative, in which 100+ university presidents recommended lowering the drinking age to 18 so that young people can be socialized into sensible drinking, Brody obligatorily sniffs: "But opponents say there is no hard evidence for this belief and a better plan would be to change the drinking culture on campus."

Of course, the purpose of the age-change proposal is to change the campus drinking culture. Recognizing that drinking occurs, while curtailing its dangerous excesses, is called "harm reduction." I have outlined a campus harm reduction approach, and a parental harm reduction approach for their teens in high school and entering college.

And Wechsler et al. are increasingly sounding like harm reductionists, without admitting it: "Yet drinking, and in particular drinking to get drunk, remains a major health and social problem on campuses." (italics added)

As a result, Wechsler and colleagues have begun studying campus settings which encourage heavy drinking: "The study found that the sites of heaviest drinking by college students were off-campus bars and parties held off-campus and at fraternity and sorority houses." But, blinkered by their zero-tolerance blinders, this quickly segues into global recommendations such as "state alcohol-control policies like keg registration and laws restricting happy hours, open containers in public, beer sold in pitchers and billboards and other types of alcohol advertising."

Wechsler and Brody are incapable of seeing that such measures are stop-gap and rearguard—that instead of trying to prevent drinking at sites "that sell alcohol in large containers, fishbowls and pitchers… special promotions: women's nights where the women can drink free; 25-cent beers; two drinks for the price of one; and gut-busters, where people can drink all they want for one price until they have to go to the bathroom," it would be better to create sensible drinking settings on campus—which would be possible with an 18-year-old drinking age.

For example, a campus eatery could serve beer and wine to students with meals, in a well-lit environment that permitted active conversations and low-key nighttime entertainments (e.g., live acoustic music), involving people of all ages (faculty, staff, families, undergraduate and graduate students). It is settings like these in which people not only drink sensibly, they learn lifetime habits of sensible drinking.

Of course, as I make clear in Addiction-Proof Your Child, avoiding excess and addiction involves more than tutoring people on substance use, it entails deeper values and purposes in life: Young people who want to accomplish something and who believe they are capable of doing so will avoid self-destructive excesses of all kinds.

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