Sunday, September 21, 2008

Younger drinkers risk ruining their lives

As a college president, I have many reasons to be concerned about the consumption of alcohol by my students. Perhaps the most clear-cut reasons are legal. Students who consume alcohol under the age of 21 are breaking state law. Furthermore, even those who are of legal drinking age might cause civil liability to accrue to the college if they drink to excess and cause harm to themselves or others.

However, the most important issues surrounding excessive and underage student drinking are, for me and my fellow presidents, not legal. Of much greater concern are the potential adverse consequences to the students themselves. Nationally almost 2,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from unintentional injuries in which alcohol was a factor. Additional hundreds of thousands of students are injured; many of them seriously. These deaths and injuries are avoidable.

Every empirical study I have seen in 25 years of studying the issue in Canada and the United States confirms that there is a direct relationship between the legal drinking age and the incidence of alcohol-related death and injury. For that reason, I would not support any reduction in the legal drinking age. This was one of the alternatives posited by the Amethyst Initiative as a way of combating underage and binge drinking. It is unfortunate that the drinking age has attracted the most attention, especially since it seems doubtful that lowering the drinking age would lead to any appreciable amelioration of the most serious consequences.

In the first place, patterns of high-risk drinking behavior are already typically well-established before students arrive at college. Findings from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, published in the Journal of American College Health (Volume 50, No.5, 223-236), state that in 2001, 43.6 percent of underage college students were classified as binge drinkers, meaning consumption of at least five drinks in a row for men or four drinks in a row for women during the two weeks before completion of the study questionnaire. The vast majority of these began drinking in high school and, increasingly, underage drinking and binge drinking are regularly occurring as low as the eighth grade or earlier.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse has found that the reported first use of alcohol went from age 17 1/2 in 1965 to 14 in 2003. Research further shows that the earlier students begin consuming alcohol, the more likely they will engage in behavior harmful to themselves and others.

Clearly this problem is as wide-ranging as the adverse consequences it brings about. Unsafe sexual practices, sexual abuse, health problems, drunk driving, property damage, vandalism, assault and alcohol dependence can all be added to the list.

And then there is the often less visible but very real matter of academic consequences. In the 1980s I reviewed thousands of files from students applying to Canadian law schools. Hundreds of those revealed a similar pattern: poor grades in the freshman year, a modest GPA increase in the sophomore year and then substantial improvement in the junior and senior years. Usually no explanation would be given for this other than a vague reference to "problems of adjustment."

Requests for a more detailed explanation typically yielded a rueful account of how the first year and a half of college were spent in a beery fog before reality intervened. Sadly too late for those whose grades, averaged over four years, were uncompetitive for law school or graduate school and who had to lower their expectations as a result. What a waste of human capital, individually sad but cumulatively tragic.

How do we as a society deal with this? Senate President Richard Codey has asked New Jersey's colleges to provide details of their alcohol policies. It is a fair request and one to which we should be glad to respond given the extensive policy frameworks, policing regimens, educational programs and health intervention measures we have developed. More importantly, it holds out the opportunity to frame the discussion properly.

Why are so many — but by no means all — college students acculturated to abusing alcohol? It can't just be about "adjustment" and new-found freedom since many of our students are sophisticated and experienced in ways that previous generations were not. We also need to go further and ask why alcohol abuse has been matched by a similar abuse of prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives. And why are these drugs so accessible?

I and my fellow presidents look forward to making progress in answering these questions.
Dr. Peter P. Mercer is president of Ramapo College of New Jersey.
source: My Central Jersey,

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