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Mark Willingham
Mark Willingham
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Protecting Your College-Student from Alcohol


We tell our college-bound (or college attending) children to be careful. We tell them not to drink. We may even tell them that if they must drink, always ride with a designated driver. Yet, 1,700 of our sons and daughters die each year and another 600,000 are seriously injured in alcohol – related incidents at college. Many of our children are the victim of sexual assaults and more still suffer academically as alcohol consumption interferes with their studies.

Is this the preverbal right of passage? Is this the experiential transition to adulthood that college students see as their birthright? More importantly, are the resulting alcohol related deaths, injuries, assaults, unprotected sex after drinking, and impaired driving crashes that come from youthful alcohol abuse part of the college experience you envisioned for your son or daughter? As the father of two children who managed to survive their college experience, I am sure it is not.

What can you do to help your children survive their college experience? Of course, you can provide them with guidance and “pearls of wisdom.” Parents can have a significant impact on their children’s drinking by setting expectations and reminding them on a regular basis of those expectations. Too often, however, college students fail to heed their parent’s advice. After all, they believe they are 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Unprecedented freedom and unlimited drinking opportunities are often temptations too great to ignore. Another alternative is to help ensure that their environment is as safe as possible.

Many universities, including public universities across the country, have bars on campus. This seems counter-intuitive when the majority of students attending the university are under the age of 21 and when few students over the age of 21 live on-campus. Logic suggests that at least some of these bars may rely on underage students to help pay the bills. What can you do to reduce the risk these bars present to your son or daughter? You can ensure that these businesses run properly. A bar on campus has an even greater obligation to prevent the sale to and consumption of alcohol by persons under the age of 21 because of the enhanced risk of underage sales caused by their proximity to underage students. Ask the university administrators to outline the responsible retailing practices utilized in these businesses. Make certain that on-campus establishments utilize effective alcohol service policies, practices, employee training, and management systems to prevent the sale and service of alcohol to minors.

Look at the advertisements posted on the bulletin boards, the walls of campus buildings, and on the columns of the colonnade. You may be surprised to see that on many campuses, almost all of these advertisements are for local bars. These bars are advertising in an environment where the vast majority of their target audience is not legally entitled to purchase their product. Advertisements such as these not only encourage underage drinking by offering all-you can-drink, drink-till-you-drop, free drinks for females, and low price drink specials, they also set a pro-drinking tone on campus. Encourage university administrators to restrict advertisements for bars and to restrict ads featuring all you can drink, gender based, and other “specials” designed to encourage over-consumption. University officials have the right to limit advertisements placed on their campuses. Remind them that consumer protection laws are available to restrict advertisements directly primarily at an audience that is precluded by law from purchasing the product.

On most campuses, local bars run shuttles to and from the campus to pick up students wishing to visit their establishments even though the vast majority of on-campus residents are under 21. Encourage university administrators to limit this practice. Party busses trolling through campus creates an unreasonable inducement to drink. Motivate the university to interact with the bars surrounding campus to implement responsible drinking practices. University officials can provide training resources and encouragement to establish safe alcohol service policies and practices in these establishments, which will prevent underage and youthful abusive drinking. For example, university administrators can reduce dangerous drinking practices in off-campus establishments such as the service of twenty-one shots on a student’s twenty-first birthday and drinking games like the ubiquitous beer-pong by working with off-campus bars to encourage acceptable practices. University officials can also utilize community and legal pressure when encouragement fails.

On average, 75 young men lose their life in alcohol – related fraternity hazing or initiation incidents each year. Others die from non-hazing alcohol-related activities. While fewer young women die while engaged in sorority focused alcohol-related activities, many die nonetheless. Members who are over 21 rarely live in the house and occupy positions of leadership. As a result, underage chapter members are left in charge of regulating the alcohol consumption of fellow underage members and pledges. The university’s interfraternity council office can tell you which fraternity or sorority has received alcohol use violations. This information can help you and your son or daughter make pledging decisions. Encourage university officials to require that each house have a house father or mother who will be present at all social events. Contact the fraternity or sorority’s headquarters and insist that national representatives visit the house on a regular basis enforcing fraternity or sorority alcohol policy.

Finally, insist that university officials promote alcohol-free sporting events. These range from prohibitions on alcohol advertising in and around sports stadiums to prohibiting the distribution of free alcoholic beverage samples to students at the event. Encourage the university to assign police resources to pre-game tailgating to prevent underage and youthful abusive drinking. Suggest the university breath test students under the age of 21 and those who have been ejected previously for alcohol offenses before allowing them into the stadium as the University of Minnesota does. Encourage students to come to the games sober. They will have a better time and will be safer at the game and afterwards.

Most university administrators understand the physical, emotional, and intellectual harm that comes from underage and youthful abusive drinking and want to reduce its impact in their communities. Your encouragement is often all they need to move forward with effective policies and restrictions.

Maj. Mark Willingham, www.alcoholsolutions.org


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  1. Ron Bogle says:
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    Mark Willingham is right on the numbers is urging parents to assume more responsibility in preparing for and protecting their student from their collegiate experience. While we have made progress in reducing destructive drinking among 18 to 20 year-old non-students, we continue in the opposite direction among collegians. Abusive drinking in this age range is uniquely a problem of university culture. Binge drinking continues to increase there, along with the number of alcohol-related deaths. This does not begin to consider the potential permanent personal health damage (including damage to the brain, heart, liver, lungs, circulatory system, pancreas, genetic makeup, etc, etc) related to underage drinking, or the known high-risk behaviors for which alcohol is a catalyst. This includes violence, property damage, suicide, homicide, high-risk sexual activity, sexual assaults against woment – the list is endless.
    Like tobacco products before it, we now know the health dangers associated with youthful consumption of alcohol – for teens, there is no such thing as a safe or healthy drink. We must recognize alcohol for what it really is – alcohol is an addictive drug responsible for killing more teens than all other drugs combined. Alcohol is the nation’s leading drug problem.
    A recent Columbia University study found that for every $1 collected in federal alcohol tax, we spend $9 cleaning up the mess related to alcohol and drug abuse. No legal product, in my opinion, imposes a greater financial or societal cost or burden than alcohol. The World Health Organization conservatively estimates that alcohol abuse costs our nation in excess of $200 billion annually. Underage drinking alone is estimated to cost our nation in excess of $60 billion annually in healthcare and other costs. Think about the costs of healthcare, broken families, criminal justice, social welfare, lost workplace productivity, domestic violence, sexual assaults, child abuse – the list of societal ills associated with alcohol misuse is endless.
    The clock is ticking for university administrators on issues related to drinking among their students. It is only a matter of time before administrators confront liability issues related to their campus and the drinking environment they have created, supported or enabled. With recent studies finding that college freshmen now spend more time drinking than studying, it’s time for a major course correction on the nation’s campuses.
    It’s often argued that alumni are an impediment to progress, advocating for alcohol, for instance, during sporting events or opposing disciplinary action against their student drinking, particularly if it involves their own child. But other parents have a responsibility to offer their own voice and opinions to university administrations to oppose the alcohol fueled environment that exists on many campuses. As the old saying goes, “When the voices of the good people are silent, the only voices heard….”
    At the end of the day, as parents we send our children to a particular college or university to obtain an education to prepare them for the future, not to prepare them as alcohol abusers to support the financial interests of the alcohol industry.
    Many of our children have become the victims of our parental neglect of underage drinking. Now, for the first time in our history, we find that the majority of the nation’s alcoholics are young people, age 26 or less. Many are teens.
    At some point, instead of continuing to protect the financial interests of the alcohol industry, either directly or indirectly, we must get serious about protecting the interests of our children from the destructive effects of alcohol. Life is not about drinking alcohol, and accepting that teens do not understand the risks or consequences, it’s time for adults to start acting like adults about this issue. Let college administrators hear your voice – let them know that you expect their institution to provide a safe environment and that you demand action to prevent abusive drinking among their students.

  2. Janet Evans says:
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    Very nicely said.