A
new
study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that college students tend to do more binge drinking in states where adults' binge-drinking rates are also high. This strong correlation led the researchers to examine state alcohol policies to assess their influence on student behavior.

The good news: Laws that restrict heavy alcohol consumption and high-volume sales appear to lower binge-drinking rates on campus.

The HSPH study compared data collected through HSPH's College Alcohol Study (CAS) with data gathered through the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a study of adults in the general population. In the CAS, binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion within the previous two weeks for men, and four or more drinks for women. In the CDC's study, both men and women were considered binge drinkers if they had imbibed five or more drinks in a row anytime in the past 30 days.

CAS lead author Toben F. Nelson, a ScD student in the Department of Society, Human Behavior, and Health, and his colleagues found that states with a set of laws that restricted alcohol sales and consumption usually had college-student binge-drinking rates below the national average.

What the researchers also wanted to know was: Which states had the most binge drinkers--and the least? And what types of laws seemed to be most effective in controlling binge drinking?

Seven key laws
The HSPH team identified a set of seven alcohol-control laws that seemed particularly influential. In addition to establishing a threshold for drunk driving at a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or greater, such laws restrict the marketing and sale of alcohol in high volumes. They require that kegs be registered in the name of the renter, for example, or restrict so-called happy hours, the use of open containers in public places, the sale of beer in pitchers, and billboard and other types of advertising.

The researchers found that binge-drinking rates for college students and adults were lower than the national average in six of the seven states with at least four of these key laws. (See chart at right.) Meanwhile, nearly all of the states with the highest drinking rates in these populations had fewer than four of the laws in place. (See chart above.)

According to CAS Principal Investigator Henry Wechsler, these results highlight the important role one's environment plays in supporting or deterring heavy drinking behavior. '"Limiting access and availability goes the extra step of creating an environment where excessive consumption is more difficult, or more expensive,'" he says.

"Laws that restrict high-volume sales are very important," adds Wechsler, who began the CAS in 1992. "Restricting kegs is in line with a basic law of alcohol consumption: once opened, a container will be drained. The larger the container, the more people drink."

Alcohol is also cheaper in high volume, he says. "We studied marketing practices in over 2,500 bars and liquor stores surrounding 118 campuses. Nearly all had specials where people could get a beer for 10 or 25 cents. Specials frequently involved super-size drinks in fish bowls, glass 'boots,' yard-long glasses, you name it."

The study bolsters the contention that laws restricting access and consumption go a long way toward curbing drinking among underage students (those under age 21) as well as the consequences, which include drunk driving, date rape, and alcohol poisoning. According to Nelson, "Underage students drink nearly half of all the alcohol consumed by college students. So while industry may claim that their specials don't target underage students, the net result is that low prices attract these young people."

Implications for policy
Lawmakers in several states and muni-cipalities are now working to enact policies that discourage alcohol use among underage students. Pending in the U.S. House of Representatives is Resolution 145, urging the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to curb alcohol advertising during sporting events. The resolution cites Nelson and Wechsler's finding that heavier drinking occurs among students who are athletes or sports fans.

Opponents of alcohol-control laws argue that individuals' behavior can't be legislated with restrictions that people may perceive as arbitrary. But a body of recent CAS research now shows that a broad set of policies are associated with lower rates of driving under the influence, underage drinking, and binge drinking. A single policy or a loose patchwork of laws may be easier to circumvent, CAS investigators say.

Of course, cultural norms are influential as well. The state of Utah, where religious and social mores discourage drinking, has the lowest college-student binge-drinking rate in the nation: one in 1,000. However, Utah also has five laws that restrict alcohol sales and marketing.

"The message from our research is clear: community standards and control policies create an environment that helps combat youthful binge drinking,'" Wechsler says. "Together, they discourage adults and students from engaging in dangerous and unhealthy behavior."

Colleen R. Capodilupo is the development communications assistant for the Review.

 

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