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A Closer Look at Alcohol
In 1993, many college students past and present were surprised to learn that what they had considered a typical Saturday night was in fact “binge drinking.” That was the year the authors of Harvard’s College Alcohol Study defined that term as the consumption of five drinks in a row for men or four drinks in a row for women—an unremarkable evening in many a Yale dorm room or fraternity house.
The new attention being paid to “binge drinking” is part of an evolving awareness of alcohol use among college students and its effects. Just as the public health consequences of smoking and poor eating habits are being examined more carefully, students and administrators alike are less likely to take heavy drinking for granted.
“Binge drinking in college is high, but it’s always been high,” says David Musto '61MA, a professor of the history of medicine and of child psychiatry who studies cultural attitudes about drugs and alcohol. “What has happened is that attitudes have been changing.” Musto contends that a “new temperance movement” is sweeping the country. “Overall, alcohol consumption has dropped by about 20 percent since 1980, most of that decline coming in distilled spirits,” he says. “Alcohol is not seen as part of a healthy lifestyle. After cigarettes, alcohol is going to be the next big reform.”
There is plenty about college drinking that cries out for change. Researchers have documented in recent years that students who engage in binge drinking are far more likely to miss classes, injure themselves, damage property, engage in unprotected sex, and get in trouble with the police. And non-drinkers suffer, too, reporting higher incidence of such second-hand effects as assault, unwanted sexual advances, interrupted study or sleep, and damaged property.
Just in this academic year, issues related to alcohol have arisen several times on Yale’s campus. New Haven police raided two fraternity parties within a month in the fall, arresting seven people at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house in September and two at the Alpha Sigma Phi house in October. In December, the varsity heavyweight crew’s activities were suspended during an investigation of a possible hazing incident when a freshman team member ended up at University Health Services after drinking too much. (The probe turned up evidence of underage drinking, but not hazing.) Meanwhile, Yale officials said in December that they would not take advantage of a new law that allows the University to notify parents about alcohol- related rules violations by their children.
Clearly, alcohol is on a lot of people’s minds, and there are any number of ideas about how to change the habits of college students and increase compliance with drinking laws. But administrators say that Yale and other colleges cannot stop underage drinking; they can only hope to check its excesses. The drinking age and the American late adolescent seem to be in eternal conflict.
This has perhaps always been true, but there was a time when this was not seen as a problem at places like Yale. From the end of Prohibition in 1933 until 1972, the legal drinking age in Connecticut was 21, but Yale students and administrators—and local saloonkeepers—essentially ignored the law, and undergraduates were served in bars and in the colleges with no questions asked. In 1972, as 18-year-olds were being sent off to Vietnam, Connecticut joined a number of states in lowering the legal age to 18.
But in the early 1980s, as the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving became a potent political force, the state raised its drinking age to 19, then to 20, and then, by federal mandate, to 21 in 1984. The motive was to reduce drunk-driving fatalities, and according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, the law saved more than 8,000 lives nationwide in its first ten years, a result that makes it hard to argue for lowering the age again.
But at Yale, where few undergraduates drive at all, the law meant simply a reshuffling of the College’s social scene. Unlike the old days, the University and local bars could not turn a blind eye to underage drinking in a climate where juries were holding those who serve alcohol responsible for the actions of those who drink it. Keg-fueled “SAC parties” and common-room happy hours had to go, and venerable student watering holes such as Mory’s and Toad’s Place had to start asking for proof of age. Organized drinking on campus dwindled, fraternities with off-campus houses began to reappear, and drinking became a more private affair.
Today, students describe a campus social scene where having a single cocktail, glass of wine, or beer, is less common than an evening intended to end in inebriation. One underage sophomore says the drinking age works against the idea of moderate social drinking. “Alcohol becomes something precious when you can’t have it whenever you want,” he says. “It’s difficult to enjoy it in small amounts when it’s so restricted.”
But others dispute the idea that the drinking age has changed patterns of student alcohol use, maintaining that students have always drunk to excess but are now simply doing it in different locations. Students say that much of their drinking takes place in their own suites, where hard liquor is the norm, in established “party suites” such as Silliman’s Beach Club and Morse’s Sexplex, and at off-campus keg parties thrown by fraternities, singing groups, and other organizations.
While wine in the dining hall and sherry at the master’s house are now off limits to underage students, the administration’s policy on student drinking hasn’t changed all that much since the old days. Relying on an interpretation of Connecticut law that forbids only serving alcohol to a minor, the College’s counselors, deans, and masters don’t take extraordinary measures to prohibit underage students from drinking in their rooms. “We believe that when people come here they are mature enough to conduct themselves in a lawful way,” says dean of student affairs Betty Trachtenberg, who keeps an eye on campus drinking. “I think that, by and large, our attitude works.”
Students say the message they get from freshman counselors when they arrive at Yale is, as one sophomore put it, “‘We know you’re going to drink, so drink responsibly.’ They have workshops on how to drink in a controlled manner and how to take care of someone who’s drunk too much.”
A statistic that sometimes fuels fears about binge drinking is the increase in the number of students who receive medical attention as a result of alcohol. While Yale’s University Health Services (UHS) will not release statistics on the subject, other colleges have reported that more students are showing up at infirmaries and hospitals after a night of binging. But some argue that this is actually good news, a sign that students are taking the risks of alcohol more seriously.
Fourteen years ago, when sophomore Ted McGuire '89 died in his room of alcohol poisoning after a night of heavy drinking with friends, the standard operating procedure for dealing with a friend who had drunk himself unconscious was to put him or her to bed with a bucket nearby. It would not have dawned on most students that a companion in that condition might need medical attention. But today, counselors and deans make a point of emphasizing to new students that they should not hesitate to take themselves or a friend to UHS if they think they may have drunk a dangerous amount of alcohol. And since students have in the past shown a reluctance to call an ambulance in such situations (which can mean a $400 bill that must be explained to Mom and Dad), the University has since 1997 offered to transport students to UHS via the campus minibus service. “We offer a van that will drive them over, no questions asked, and someone can watch them all night,” says Silliman College dean Hugh Flick. “So when the ‘transports’ to UHS are up, I see it as a good sign. People are transporting their friends, and more people are getting the help they need.”
But should the University be going further to combat alcohol abuse and underage drinking? One tool that has been made available to administrators is the ability to contact a student’s parents if he or she commits an alcohol- or drug-related infraction. Last summer, Congress amended the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act—which forbids colleges from releasing information about a student to parents or anyone else without the student’s consent—to allow such an exception. A study at Bowling Green State University suggests that such notifications reduce repeat offenses, but Yale has not taken advantage of the law. Last fall, Trachtenberg said she planned to send letters to parents, but she changed her mind because of fears that the threat of a letter home could discourage students from seeking help in emergencies.
Instead, the Dean’s Office and the mental hygiene department of UHS have focused their efforts on education. Lorraine Siggins, the chief of mental hygiene at UHS, says that students often have much to learn about how alcohol affects them. In talks to freshmen, at study breaks in the colleges, in fraternities and sororities, and even in sessions at the graduate and professional schools, Siggins and her staff of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers give a short course in the chemistry and the psychology of alcohol. “We try to talk about informed decision- making and low-risk ways of drinking,” says Siggins. “We talk about the alcohol content of various liquors, how eating affects the equation, what a dangerous blood-alcohol level is, what are circumstances under which they tend to drink too much, and the fact that women metabolize alcohol more slowly.” When students are taken or take themselves to UHS, they routinely are given an appointment at mental hygiene to discuss the episode and ways they might avoid problems in the future.
While Siggins would not speculate on whether there is more drinking—or more dangerous drinking—on campus now than in the past, she does believe that there is increased awareness on campus about alcohol. Some of that new awareness is the work of the College Alcohol Study (CAS), the ongoing project at Harvard’s School of Public Health whose findings on “binge drinking” have been highly publicized. Henry Wechsler, who heads the CAS, says he developed his definition of binge drinking based on the amount of alcohol it takes “to put the drinker and others at risk.” CAS’s research shows that men who have five drinks in a row or women who have four have an increased risk of commiting vandalism, getting in fights, driving drunk, injuring themselves, or getting into trouble with the police. “The standard represents a danger signal, a warning of negative health, social, economic, and legal consequences ahead,” says Wechsler. The CAS has surveyed college students throughout the 1990s and has found that binge drinking has “stayed high,” according to Wechsler. As for possible solutions to the high binge- drinking rate, Wechsler says CAS studies have found that students in “substance-free” dormitories drink less, and that raising prices and limiting availability could help.
H. Wesley Perkins '79PhD, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, could not disagree more. “Traditional strategies have not changed behavior one percent,” says Perkins. Instead of focusing on education about alcohol’s consequences—“scaring the health into people,” he calls it—or cracking down on the sources of supply, Perkins advocates a new tactic called a “social norms model” of alcohol education. The social norms model is based on research by Perkins and others that shows that college students consistently overestimate how much their classmates drink. Such misperceptions, Perkins says, affect their own decisions about how much it is acceptable to drink. Perkins encourages colleges to publicize around campus its statistics on drinking. “Our strategy is to tell the truth about peer norms, rather than moralizing and telling them what to do,” he says. “Most students have responsible attitudes but don’t realize that their attitudes are normative.”
The results have been striking on Perkins’s home campus, where messages about peer norms have been appearing in print and electronic media for five years now. In the first 18 months of the campaign, the number of students who engaged in frequent heavy drinking at Hobart and William Smith went down 21 percent—a figure Perkins says is remarkable, considering that the rate of heavy drinking among college students nationally has not changed more than one percent in the last 15 years. Other campuses, such as Arizona and Northern Illinois, have experienced similar drops after adopting the approach.
What’s more, Perkins says the campaign has resulted in even sharper drops in the consequences of drinking, including property damage, missed classes, unprotected sex, and memory loss. “We think this is because the social norms model has a sharper effect on the heaviest drinkers,” says Perkins. “Those who are moderate drinkers back off a little bit. But the most permissive change their behavior more dramatically.”
Lorraine Siggins says that social-norms education is one part of her department’s approach. “We’ve been doing some of that,” she says. “Students always perceive that others are drinking more than they really are.” But Wechsler is skeptical about trying to suggest that alcohol use on campus is less of a problem than people might think. “I don’t know of any public health problem that has been solved by playing it down,” he says.
Skeptics surely will say that nothing will stop the inevitable, age-old undergraduate penchant for testing limits with alcohol. Even Wechsler notes that the relationship between college and the bottle was described by Thomas Jefferson as an undergraduate at William and Mary. Still, reformers have a precedent in tobacco that gives them cause for optimism. Only a generation ago, smoking was a ubiquitous habit, practiced with impunity almost anywhere on campus. Now, it is the exception rather than the rule. Already, abstaining from alcohol seems to be a more common and acceptable stance for an undergraduate, and in the larger popular culture, drunkenness is less a staple of film and television comedy. At Yale, even Mory’s now offers a non-alcoholic version of its famous “cups.” If alcohol seems to be a bigger problem on campus than it used to be, the reason may be that people are coming to the conclusion that what used to be just having a good time is no longer acceptable.
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