Reports of alcohol-related mayhem and tragedies are piling up once again on college campuses. In October, it was the Harvard University student convicted of manslaughter for stabbing a restaurant worker in a fight following a night of drinking, and two Marshall University football players accused of assaulting a woman in a bar. A University of Delaware student who was struck and killed by a train on her way home from a fraternity party had a blood alcohol concentration three times the legal limit. A Colorado State University student was found dead Saturday in an apparent alcohol-related incident. CSU recently formed a task force on drinking after another student's death in September. Police said the 19-year-old woman had consumed some 40 beers that evening.
But these high-profile incidents are only part of the story. For every tragedy or event that makes the news, there are hundreds of thousands of other alcohol-related problems on campuses that nobody hears about. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that each year, drinking by college students has resulted in 1,400 deaths (usually from drinking and driving), 500,000 injuries, 600,000 assaults, and 70,000 sexual assaults or date rapes. Alcohol-fueled riots at Halloween and following sports victories are almost regular occurrences.
The solution is to change the overall drinking environment that envelops collegiate life in America and provides fertile ground for these problems.
For years, colleges have relied on educating young people about responsible behavior and the dangers of alcohol, though at the same time alcohol remained easily available, attractive, and inexpensive for students. An alcohol information pamphlet handed out at freshman orientation cannot compete with "Nickel Beer Nite" at a pub across the street from the dorms or free beer at a rowdy fraternity party. If we want college kids to behave responsibly, we need to build the environment to support them in making the right decisions.
Colleges tend to make the mistake of searching for one easy solution or tactic, such as an alcohol awareness campaign. Instead, they should think about preventing college drinking the same way we prevent traffic accidents - with an array of protective measures: seat belts, air bags, traffic lights, speed limits, and police enforcement. What most colleges do is akin to asking young adults to drive responsibly, then sending them out on a highway with no speed limit.
Most people, particularly college kids themselves, say that students are going to drink a lot no matter what. Far from being a statement of fact, however, this belief reflects the popular acceptance of the heavy-drinking environment around so many college campuses. But that environment can be changed through a multifaceted program of controls on the sale, service, and promotion of alcohol.
This does work. In 1998, the Prevention Research Center completed five years of community trials to reduce alcohol abuse, both adult and underage, in Oceanside and Salinas, Calif., and in Florence, S.C.
A collection of control measures were enacted, such as training employees at bars and liquor stores not to sell alcohol to people who were obviously intoxicated or underage; increasing drunk-driving enforcement by police; controlling the density of bars and liquor stores by limiting new licenses, not reissuing licenses for locations that went out of business, and closing down repeat violators of liquor laws; and mobilizing community groups to support these efforts.
The measures contributed to a 43 percent reduction in assault injuries reported at emergency rooms and a 10 percent drop in nighttime traffic crashes causing injury. Surveys also showed a 49 percent decline in people reporting heavy drinking.
This same approach can work for college campuses. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health showed positive results for five campuses that made serious efforts to control alcohol. And last year's landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences on how to reduce underage drinking endorsed similar alcohol-control measures to change the drinking environment that leads to youth alcohol abuse. Additional controls recommended for colleges include halting drink specials at bars near campus, expanding substance-free residence halls, promoting alcohol-free activities on campus, coordinating campus and city police to crack down on rowdy house parties, and requiring registration for beer kegs so police can track who's responsible if problems result.
While there is no way to know when or where the next tragedy will occur, the larger impacts of college drinking affect nearly every campus on an almost daily basis. A protective system of alcohol controls can change the long-established drinking environment at American colleges and universities and thereby reduce alcohol-related deaths, as well as the less publicized problems of assaults, injuries, rapes, and property damage.
• Paul Gruenewald is scientific director and Robert Saltz is senior research scientist at the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, Calif.