Make binge drinking as unappealing as smoking
In the past two decades, young people have largely rejected cigarettes. The rate of high school students who smoke has been cut in half.
It's a striking trend that colleges should note as they struggle with another seemingly intractable problem, binge drinking, which is blamed for assorted campus problems, particularly sexual assaults.
About 35 percent of college students binge drink, defined as downing five or more drinks in a row. That's a modest decrease from the 40 percent who binged in 1993, when the first national studies made headlines; but it's a small reward for the energy that has been devoted to the problem.
Nearly every college tries to educate students about the hazards of drinking. About 70 percent of colleges prohibit alcohol at dorm events and 70 percent prohibit kegs at all campus events. Some colleges — most recently Dartmouth — have tried banning hard liquor, but there's little evidence that bans have a major impact.
The problem, several researchers said, is that the colleges have gone about it the wrong way. They've failed to follow through or link their restrictions to more wide-ranging strategies akin to those that turned teens against smoking.
Many young people no longer view smoking as cool. In a 2013 survey, 88 percent of those ages 19 to 22 said close friends would disapprove of their smoking a pack or more a day — the result being massive public education campaigns, restrictions on sales and use and higher taxes.
For weekend binging, just 53 percent said they'd face peer disapproval. Yet fewer than half of colleges consistently enforce their alcohol policies at fraternities or, even more puzzling, in dorms.
College leaders "imagine drinking is so widespread that to enforce would require a police state," says California research scientist Robert Saltz. But it doesn't require prohibition, just strategies that gradually change attitudes.
A study at 14 California universities found a combination of three approaches aimed at off-campus drinking to be effective: drunken-driving checks near campus, police enforcement against sales to minors and "party patrols" to enforce local laws on noise and underage-drinking off campus.
The best strategies require building coalitions among police, governments, business owners and landlords who rent to students — a multifaceted approach that echoes anti-smoking efforts. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has done this since the late 1990s, cut binge drinking by a third; and with binge drinkers in the minority, cultural change is more likely.
Rather than banning drinking, which students reject, such approaches concentrate on punishing bad, and unpopular, behaviors associated with it. The recent spotlight on sexual assaults has also spawned creative ideas, such as using sober students as party monitors and moving parties from fraternities to sororities.
Smoking once seemed as intractable as binge drinking does now. But with the right strategies, it could someday carry the same social stigma.
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