I have learned how complex the problems around college drinking are, not just here in our community but all over the country. It has become clear to me, though, that we will never make any headway against problem student drinking and its effects until we change the environment locally around alcohol.
What does this mean, to “change the environment?” Perhaps the way to start explaining this concept is to first say what it is not. It is not focused on changing individual behavior, through either education or resistance training. It is not “prohibition” of alcohol in the community. It is not condemning those who drink or sell alcohol responsibly. And it is not eliminating personal responsibility for those whose behavior causes damage or injury to others.
Using an environmental approach to the problem of dangerous college alcohol use means rejecting the adage that “it’s the way it’s always been, and the way it’s always going to be.” It means examining those aspects of our society that increase alcohol misuse, and trying to change them. It means insisting that policy makers and law enforcement work together with community groups so that changes will have long-term effects on the problem. And it means holding all those who participate in the advertising, sale, and service of alcohol accountable if they engage in irresponsible business practices.
Here are some of the environmental factors that have been shown to affect student drinking:
- Alcohol is abundantly available and inexpensive, both to of-age and underage students. Often, a night at a bar with drink specials is the cheapest form of entertainment available.
- There are pervasive messages, through ads, movies, peers, etc. that binge drinking is part of the “normal” college experience. The alcoholic beverage industry spends over $2 billion in advertising a year, much of which promotes young adult drinking as the norm.
- There are few inexpensive social and recreational opportunities for students that do not involve alcohol.
- Unfortunately, the low price of alcohol means it is hard for businesses providing non-alcoholic entertainment to profitably compete.
- The true costs of alcohol misuse, from treatment to vandalism to violence, are not paid by those who cause them: the irresponsible drinkers and sellers of alcoholic beverages.
- According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, 55% of the costs of alcohol and other drug abuse are borne by society, including local, state or federal governments, insurance companies and victims.
What can be done to try to change these environmental influences? Here are some policy-focused solutions to consider pursuing:
- Eliminating irresponsible alcohol sales and marketing practices by local bars, restaurants and liquor outlets. This includes promoting responsible alcoholic beverage service, ending drink price specials and promotions, and decreasing advertising that promotes binge drinking by college students.
- Reducing availability by reducing the density of alcohol outlets within walking distance to campus. This will also reduce second hand effects of alcohol suffered by other downtown businesses, residents and shoppers.
- Increasing social opportunities both on campus and off that do not include excessive use of alcohol. These will give students entertainment options that are within the price range of a night out at the bars.
- Drafting ordinances that will hold those that cause alcohol-related problems responsible. These include a stronger “disorderly premise” ordinance targeting problem off-campus residences, and one fining those businesses causing excessive use of municipal services.
- Promoting increased enforcement of alcohol-related laws, including underage service, drunk driving, and public disturbance. Alcohol is tied to a large percentage of crimes committed, so preventing alcohol-related problems is an effective use of officers’ time. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, alcohol is linked to 95% of violent crimes and 90% of rapes on college campuses.
There will always be some factors in our environment that are difficult to control. However, our organization believes the steps we are taking will make it easier for students to make positive choices regarding alcohol, which will improve the quality of life here in our community, and create a safer, healthier community for all of us.