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the battle of the binge

Some U.S. colleges are adopting new strategy to shut down out-of-control student drinking. A $10 million grant program is encouraging them to take the dry road.

October 19, 1998|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It's late Saturday night on Homecoming weekend in this picturesque Midwestern college town. But in the dozens of bars just off the University of Iowa campus, the atmosphere is tranquil. There are no lines forming to enter the bars, and the pedestrian malls and sidewalks show no signs of the heavy student drinking that has characterized this town for many years.

A mile away from the downtown scene, several fraternity houses appear quiet. Only one house has an obvious party underway.

The post-football game victory celebrations--at least the ones featuring booze--have gone underground at the University of Iowa this autumn.

The change has much to do with an ambitious new program at Iowa that is attempting to curb the high rate of binge drinking among students. The programs, part of a $10-million initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are also in place at nine other U.S. colleges, including the University of Colorado in Boulder, the University of Delaware, Florida State and Louisiana State.

The stakes are high. Success, which Iowa administrators define as a gradual reduction in binge drinking rates, has the potential to do to binge drinking behavior what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to the practice of driving under the influence of alcohol, says Laurie Leiber, director of the nonprofit Center on Alcohol Advertising in Berkeley.

Failure, however, could mean the addition of yet another well-intentioned plan to the public health compost pile.

"There really hasn't been anyone asking the questions that MADD started asking, which is, 'What are the predictable consequences of alcohol in our society?' " Leiber says. "What MADD did was simply point out that we are losing people on the road."

Likewise, Leiber said, drinking-related deaths, such as a 1995 death in a fraternity house at Iowa, several throughout the country in 1997, and one last week at Rutgers University, "rivet people's attention."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Princeton, N.J.-based philanthropy devoted to health, stipulates that the grantees must involve both the college and surrounding community to focus on the environment that leads to excessive drinking--especially access to alcohol.

The program differs significantly from other substance abuse prevention programs of the last two decades (such as DARE, "Just Say No" and others) because it deemphasizes educating youths about their personal responsibility in favor of creating an environment in which drinking to excess is frowned upon, too difficult and too risky.

"The personal responsibility approach is not going to suffice; there are too many pressures," says University of Iowa president Mary Sue Coleman, who has been urging college presidents nationwide to address the problem. "We are talking about the environment and the culture we create that leads to something like a student's death."

But to critics of the program, this "environmental approach" smacks of Big Brother oversight, infringement of individual rights or even a throwback to Prohibition.

"When we tell Americans you cannot have something, they tend to reach for it," says Janet Reis, an associate professor in community health at the University of Illinois. With funding from the alcoholic beverage industry, Reis has developed an education program for colleges, called Alcohol 101, which stresses personal responsibility. "The environment is very important. But we first have to modify individual attitudes about drinking."

Efforts such as the Iowa program, however, spring from a growing recognition that previous efforts to curb binge drinking have been largely unsuccessful, says Richard Yoast, director of the office of alcohol and other drug abuse at the American Medical Assn., which administers the Johnson grants.

"In the past, we have tried to deal with youth who have been drinking by scolding them and punishing them without getting to the causes of why they are drinking," Yoast said. "It's like putting kids in a candy store, advertising the candy, and then telling them not to eat the candy. If we had wanted students to drink, we couldn't have created any better environment in colleges than we have now."

The statistics bear that out. A recent annual survey from Harvard University showed that bingeing rates have not changed much in recent years, with 42.7% of college students admitting to the practice in 1997. Bingeing is typically defined as five drinks in a row for men, four in a row for women.

Slightly more than half of the Harvard students who drank said they aimed to get drunk, while a recent survey from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that adolescents ages 16 to 19 said they drink to fit in and have fun.

Emphasizing the Costs of Alcohol Abuse

The time seems right to marshal forces for an assault on America's alcohol-friendly culture, says Iowa's Coleman.

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