Study: College Drinking Can Have Deadly Outcomes

Each year 1,400 college students die from alcohol-related accidents, half a million are injured and more than 70,000 are victims of alcohol-related rape or sexual assault, a report on student drinking said today.

The causes of death include car crashes, falls from balconies and students choking on their own vomit, among other misfortunes, said the report, released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a subsidiary of National Institutes of Health.

"This should be a wakeup call. There's a clear need for colleges to do something about it," said the study's lead author, Ralph Hingson, associate dean for research at Boston University School of Public Health.

Along with the troubling statistics comes a bit of welcome news for colleges — research outlining proven strategies to curb college drinking. Schools are urged to strictly enforce the drinking age, find creative ways to change student habits and enlist the surrounding community for help.

Those ideas have been tested at the University of Rhode Island — named the nation's top party school three years in a row in the mid-1990s. "We really had to admit that we had a alcohol problem. We are just like an alcoholic that was in denial," said URI President Robert Carothers.

Denial has been replaced by resolve. The school now has one of the nation's toughest anti-alcohol campaigns

"If your idea is to abuse alcohol or other substances, please do us a big favor and don't come here," Carothers said. "We don't want you. We won't need you and you won't be happy here so don't come."

At URI, alcohol is strictly banned at all campus events without exception. That includes homecoming, fraternity parties, even alumni events.

The school also works in partnership with the local community. Area police contact the school once a week to report all students who have run afoul of the law because of alcohol. And students who live off campus must sign leases that strictly prohibit fraternity events and keg parties. If they violate the lease, their parents can be fined.

The Placebo Test

The school uses unconventional methods to gauge student attitudes about alcohol. The schools holds exercises every six months as part of a research study, sponsored in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Students are brought to a mock tavern on campus, a room equipped with a bar and a collection of neon liquor ads. Some students are served alcohol. Some a placebo.

The students socialize, introduce themselves and play a game before facilitators ask them to participate in a survey. They are asked to determine whether they think they were served alcohol and why.

Two young men are certain that they have been served hard liquor. A psychology major named Liam explains that he is feeling "pretty good and happy." The second explains, "my face is kind of warm and my vocab is out there so I'm going with yeah."

But when it comes time to reveal the truth both are shocked to learn that there was no alcohol in their drinks. The school hopes the exercise helps teach students that they don't need alcohol to loosen up socially.

Mark Alcade said the study changed his outlook on drinking. "I was feeling good, you know. I was like, oh, wow, maybe it goes along with their theory that you know perhaps it is the thinking that affects us just as much as the alcohol levels."

Changes in Drinking Mentality

Since these changes were introduced in 1995, the school has seen a 15 percent drop in binge drinking and is attracting students with higher grades and SAT scores.

"We were drawing a student body whose center of their social life was alcohol and the abuse of alcohol, " Carothers said. "We had high absentee rates, we had low retention rates, we had a whole variety of problems that were associated with the abuse of alcohol."

Lauren Boulanger, a junior, says the get tough-policy on alcohol makes students think twice about binge drinking. "It gives you an idea of what the effects really are.

Still, it is hard to change heavy drinking habits.

Mark Jacobs, a senior at URI, said he and his roommates go through a few kegs every week. "I say Wednesday through Saturday the idea is to get as drunk as you can. Monday, Tuesday, Sunday, just relax and have a couple of beers."

Researchers say binge drinking has grown on campus because colleges were so focused on drug abuse that they ignored the more widespread problem of alcohol. Today's report, with its research-based recommendations, urges schools to be aggressive and persistent in combating a problem that is cutting young lives short.