How to curb student drinking

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No change in social norms here


In light of the new fall semester, on today’s Morning Edition, Phil Picardi interviewed Toben Nelson, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health on what colleges can do to curb student drinking

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[audio href="" title="Toben Nelson interview"]How to deal with binging[/audio]

Nelson’s work was the subject of a piece last month by MPR higher education reporter Tim Post, and his study found that of the 351 colleges Nelson surveyed, only about half had intervention programs for students at risk of developing an alcohol problem.  

As it is, binge drinking is more common in Minnesota and a number of Midwest states than it is anywhere else in the country.    

Here are my notes on the exchange:  

For some students, that first taste of freedom in college presents an irresistible opportunity to party. Nationally, more than 1,400 students die in alcohol-related incidents each year, and hundreds of thousands are injured or sexually assaulted.  

Alcohol and college life have gone hand in hand for ages. Is there anything that can be done to keep students away from booze?  

Yes. A 2002 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report recommended measures based on the best science we have: measures such as intervention programs and looking to the community to reduce access to alcohol such as by restricting alcohol outlets, raising the price of alcohol through excise taxes, looking at responsible beverage service practices, and by enforcing laws regarding impaired driving and the drinking age.  

Should the focus be on the heaviest drinkers or also on the more moderate ones?  

It’s not an either/or question. Most colleges now focus on the highest-risk drinkers, but those comprise actually very few of the problems related to alcohol. The kinds of interventions that are more likely to reduce the overall level are those that create a social environment that reduces drinking.  

How would an education campaign be carried out? I remember being in a high school class on drugs, and after the course almost everyone indicated they’d still try them. How effective such campaigns.  

Nearly all colleges do educational campaigns to address student drinking. They’ve done for long time. Research shows that the heaviest drinkers are the most targeted in those campaigns, yet it hasn’t reduced drinking at all. The NIAA says strong evidence shows those programs by themselves are not effective.  

Some colleges try to change social norms by showing students that binge drinking is not as common on campuses as it’s perceived. Is that an effective strategy?  

Evidence on that is mixed. We’ve done our own study. We found it has actually led to increased drinking in part because the students not drinking in the first place looked at those norms and thought, “Maybe I should be drinking.”  

In general, are colleges doing enough to reduce drinking?  

If you ask most college administrators, they’ll say, “We’re doing everything we can.” But our research suggests the strategies that are grounded in science are the ones that really haven’t been pursued by colleges. Admittedly these are challenging kinds of interventions for colleges to do. Colleges can’t really do them by themselves. They need to do a better job of reaching out to people in the community and working closely with law enforcement, lawmakers and service providers to create a better environment for college students.