Dr. Ed Ehlinger presented the survey results with the good news first. Of the eight schools that have participated in the survey the past two years, seven saw a decline in tobacco use among so-called, "current smokers," students who have smoked within the past 30 days.
Even better, six schools recorded a decrease in the frequency of daily smoking among students. These daily smokers are the most worrisome to public health officials because they tend to be more likely to smoke long-term. Ehlinger, who directs the U of M's Boynton Health Services, was especially pleased to announce a marked decline in these types of smokers at his university.
"In 1998, 9.8-percent of our students were daily smokers. That has dropped now to 4.5-percent, a huge drop. And these are the folks that, because they're not smoking on a daily basis, really are going to have fewer health problems down the road. I think this is a huge gain for our society," he said.
Ehlinger says it's possible some of the decline in smoking at the U of M can be attributed to a 2005 smoking ban passed in Minneapolis. He says the survey showed that student smoking in bars declined by more than 10-percent in the past year. He says student's exposure to second-hand smoke on the weekends also dropped considerably.
But along with the good news, there was some sobering news about alcohol use. High-risk drinking rates remain high at all colleges and universities surveyed. At the U of M almost 44 percent of students reported consuming five or more drinks on one occasion within the two weeks prior to taking the survey. That rate is unchanged from 2005.
Ehlinger says student alcohol abuse appears to be an intractable problem that often leads to dangerous behavior.
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"Fifty-four percent of those who are high-risk drinkers, having five or more drinks at a sitting in the last two weeks, over half have driven while under the influence of alcohol."
That was one of the most disturbing findings to Ehlinger. But he says the survey also showed that 63-percent of binge drinkers had gotten into arguments as a result of their drinking. Almost half reported that they did poorly on a test. And others fell victim to unwanted sexual activity. "16.9-percent of individuals who engage in high-risk drinking have been taken advantage-of sexually over the last year. So these are significant impacts that are directly related to alcohol consumption." The U of M is focusing its alcohol strategy on ways to prevent sexual assaults and keep students from driving drunk. Recently the University started a campaign to encourage students to dial 911 for emergency help any time a student passes out from drinking.
But Ehlinger says problem drinking is simply too big for any college or university to handle alone. He says schools need community help if they hope to bring down binge drinking statistics.
Schools do have an ally in the Minnesota Medical Association, the state's largest physicians group. At their annual meeting two months ago, MMA delegates unanimously approved a resolution to push for a 10-cent per drink increase in the state excise tax on beer, wine and spirits. The organization believes the tax will drastically curb underage drinking and possibly even drinking among legal age college students who don't have much money.
MMA President Dr. Richard Geier says doctors will lobby lawmakers to approve the tax during the next Legislative session.
"Any increase will have some effect," he says. "It's a pretty direct relationship between how much you increase it and how much you reduce the drinking because kids are pretty price sensitive. The more it goes up, the less drinking you're going to have, just as we found with cigarettes, raising the cigarette tax does the same thing to teenage smoking."
But Geier says raising the liquor tax alone won't be enough to solve problem drinking among students. He says the culture has to change too, much in the way it's changed with tobacco use.
"Right now it's not so cool to smoke, at least among the people with any education. And the same has to be true with people getting drunk."
Geier predicts that culture change could take time. He says despite their many victories in recent years, anti-smoking groups are still working to pass a statewide smoking ban.