Could States’ Efforts to Reduce College Campus Drinking Backfire?
May 7, 2014, 2:32 PM
This week Maryland became one of more than a dozen states to ban sales of grain alcohol, also known as extreme-strength alcohol. The drink, which includes the brand name Everclear, is 95 percent pure alcohol. It has no color, taste or smell and so easily mixes—without detection—into juices, soda and punch, making it an effective date rape tool, according to college health officials. And it’s cheap. A whole bottle can cost $15, which is a price easily shared among college or younger students.
Banning extreme-strength alcohol is among several initiatives a growing number of states are taking to try to reduce college student deaths, injuries and assaults linked to campus alcohol use. A report published in September by The Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, which was formed in 2013 to address problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption on ten college campuses across the state, found that alcohol use of any kind on campuses across the country each year results in 1,800 deaths; 600,000 injuries; 700,000 assaults by someone under the influence; and nearly 1 million rapes and sexual assaults.
Many states, including Maryland, have declared college campus drinking to be a public health emergency that goes well beyond the campus because of the noise, vandalism, car crashes and community injuries and deaths linked to campus drinking each year. Banning grain alcohol was the Maryland Collaborative’s first initiative because college students who are binge drinkers—a serious and dangerous issue on campuses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—are 36 times more likely to drink grain alcohol than are non-binge drinkers, according to David H. Jernigan, the director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.
But some research shows that banning extreme strength alcohol can actually exacerbate the problem by raising awareness of the drink to students who may not have been aware of it before. This can push students in search of grain alcohol to find other high-octane sources, such as privately made moonshine, which can be even more highly concentrated than commercially available grain alcohol and can contain other contaminants, said Laura Forbes, an associate professor of health education at the University of Alabama/Birmingham and chair of the American College Health Association’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Coalition.
According to Forbes, what is desperately needed is a campus culture change on alcohol just like the culture change that has reduced smoking on campus; many campuses bans tobacco use outright. Forbes said reaching that goal requires collaborations—such as the one in Maryland—that bring together campus administrators, businesses, student leaders, law enforcement, public health and the community.
“The way to change the culture,” she said, “is to start to have a conversation that with students about why they’re drinking and to include administrations, faculty, alumni and others in the talks.”
Forbes said the culture change won’t be a suddenly dry campus. “It will be incremental over time, but each campus has to start the change to where they want to move.”
- The Maryland Collaborative has released a best practices guide for reducing campus drinking that includes both individual and campus-wide interventions.
- The CDC recently updated its Alcohol and Public Health website, which now includes new infographics and links to videos, webinars, e-cards and podcasts, as well as a fact sheet on preventing excessive alcohol use, which highlights evidence-based strategies such as those recommended by the Community Preventive Services Task Force.
This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.