Anti-booze cues

A university renowned for drunkenness has pioneered a new way to tackle student drinking. Jon Marcus reports

August 29, 2013

How many calories are there in a bottle of beer? That’s one of the talking points that counsellors at US universities have begun to use to discourage students from high-risk drinking, following a new approach begun on the campus most closely associated with alcohol abuse.

And it appears to be working.

The campaign began at Dartmouth College, the Ivy League institution that inspired the 1978 frat house comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. It forgoes the futile tradition of education sessions at orientations for new students, in favour of a more individualised, practical response to students found to have a problem.

Counsellors swoop in as soon as a student is found to be drunk and intervene immediately with eye-opening information about, for example, how binge drinking might affect the student’s fitness, or how much more he or she is drinking than his or her classmates.

“There’s this moment of saying, ‘I thought I was drinking the same amount as other students were drinking, but I can see now that I’m drinking more’,” said Aurora Matzkin, special assistant to the president for student health. “An alcohol incident can be a shameful experience for students. It really can be a wake-up call.”

That’s what Dartmouth students now get the morning after their names turn up on the campus safety and security report for infringing the rules on alcohol consumption.

They are invited – they cannot be compelled, except as part of a much longer disciplinary process later – to attend a 30-minute confidential meeting with a counsellor who does not preach but lets students reach their own conclusions.

“Where change is needed, we try to get the student to suggest it,” Dr Matzkin said. “What is important to each student is different. For some, it’s calories.”

Public health approach

The idea for the programme came from Jim Yong Kim in 2011, when he was president of Dartmouth. He based it on his previous work for the World Health Organization battling the likes of HIV-Aids in Rwanda and drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru. Dr Kim now heads the World Bank.

“He recognised that Dartmouth was facing, like colleges and universities around the world, students who were getting dangerously intoxicated,” Dr Matzkin said.

And although the programme has not yet met its goal of reducing to zero the number of cases of students being found with a blood alcohol content of more than 0.25, it has dramatically cut the number of such incidents from 80 in 2011 to 31 in the past academic year.

Now 31 other institutions are following suit – among them Brown University, Yale University and Stanford University – in what is called the National College Health Improvement Program.

Nearly half of US university students who binge drink have been found to fall behind in coursework, 42 per cent had unplanned sexual activity, 55 per cent blacked out, 62 per cent did something they later regretted and 69 per cent drove after drinking, according to the College Alcohol Study done by the Harvard School of Public Health.

There is no empirical proof yet that links reductions in binge drinking to the Dartmouth-style interventions, but research is under way, said Justin Anderson, a university spokesman.

“We’re just going to keep on doing new things and trying new things and measuring them, and we certainly hope that the numbers will go down,” he said.

Elissa Weitzman, associate director of the College Alcohol Study, called the Dartmouth approach a step in the right direction.

She agreed that general information sessions, compared with direct interventions after an incident of alcohol abuse, had been found to be among the least effective means of dealing with binge drinking.

But she also said that the factor that most encourages overindulgence is low drink prices and the heavy promotion of alcohol by bars near university campuses.

“This is a hard problem,” Dr Weitzman said. “It’s deeply ingrained in our society. The realist in me says there’s no magic bullet.”

It is not lost on Dartmouth officials that they are in a unique position to pioneer an anti-drinking campaign.

“One faculty member who works with us often talks about how important it is that Dartmouth is doing this work, partly because of the institutional lore,” Dr Matzkin said. “There is a little bit of, ‘If Dartmouth can do this, everybody can’.”

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