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Heavy drinking a problem at most Canadian campuses: report

But many universities are taking measures to counter binge drinking.

by Rosanna Tamburri

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It’s come to be seen as a rite of passage among students. Each year, along with the start of classes, are the inevitable pub crawls, keg parties and excessive drinking that often accompany frosh week events. But this fall, more universities are cracking down on these behaviours and putting policies in place to discourage binge drinking.

Excessive drinking is a common problem at most colleges and universities, sometimes precipitating incidents that make national headlines. St. Patrick’s Day festivities sparked a riot last March near Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. Two alcohol-related deaths at Queen’s University in 2010 led to a coroner’s investigation. And last fall, a student at Acadia University died of alcohol poisoning during orientation week.

Now, a report conducted in response to the death at Acadia says, “Harmful drinking by university students is a problem for most, if not every university.” The report by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness says, “The university environment has a significant role in shaping student behaviours, and as such, the campus context needs to be altered so that it does not support a heavy drinking culture.” The report, “Reducing Alcohol Harms among University Students,” was published in the spring and recently made available online.

According to one estimate, almost 90 percent of Canadian university students drink alcohol, while 32 percent reported drinking heavily at least once a month; the percentage was higher in Nova Scotia, at 51 percent. Men drink more than women but the gap is narrowing, the report said. A recent trend among young people is to mix alcohol with caffeinated beverages, which can exacerbate health risks associated with heavy drinking.

The study recommends that universities take a comprehensive approach to combat binge drinking. No single intervention, such as a public awareness campaign, is effective in changing student drinking habits, said Lisa Jacobs, the report’s author. Focusing on the individual drinker in a university context has a limited impact, she said, “because the actual drinking environment on campus supports, and in some cases promotes, heavy drinking.”

Awareness campaigns are important, but universities also need to implement policies and controls in residences and campus bars and to work with governments and community partners to effect meaningful change. U.S. research shows that universities with the highest drinking rates tend to be in communities with high drinking rates. While no comparable Canadian data exist, Ms. Jacobs suspects the situation is similar here. “It’s very difficult for university administrators to change that drinking culture on their own,” she said.

The report highlights best practices that Canadian and U.S. universities use to tackle the problem. Among them, Acadia University has partnered with its hometown of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, to come up with a community-wide strategy to address heavy drinking on and off campus. It is the only Canadian university to join the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, a group of more than 30 U.S. universities and colleges that aims to identify and implement evidence-based practices to reduce high-risk drinking.
An advantage that Canadian universities have over their U.S. counterparts is the absence of a strong fraternity and sorority culture, which can contribute to heavy drinking, said Sara Lochhead, Acadia’s vice-president of enrolment and student services. Still, binge drinking remains a serious “public health issue” at Canadian universities, she said.

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Binge drinking: Percentage who consumed five or more drinks per occasion at least 12 times a year, by age group and sex, household population aged 12 or older, Canada 2011. (Source: Statistics Canada)

Many schools have taken measures to restrict drinking in student dorms, with a growing trend to make residences alcohol-free during orientation week. Western, Guelph, Queen’s and others have done so in recent years, and anecdotal evidence suggests the measures are working. Last year, Queen’s banned alcohol in its residences during orientation week, reduced the volume of alcohol that of-age students are allowed to have in residence and banned alcohol in residences’ common areas. Queen’s is also reviewing its campus alcohol policy and developing a new disciplinary system for violations.

University of Alberta recently announced a ban on drinking in common areas of its undergraduate student residences starting in September on a year-round basis. Last year, pathways below dorm rooms were routinely littered with broken glass from students tossing bottles out of windows and several drunk students, found lying in vomit, had to be taken to hospital. “It’s incomprehensible to defend a culture and a system that fosters and celebrates this type of behaviour,” said Frank Robinson, U of A’s vice-provost and dean of students. The university is moving ahead with the measures despite vigorous opposition from students.

At the University of Saskatchewan, students launched the Student Binge Drinking Prevention Initiative last year. The research project, which evolved from a senior-year sociology class on addiction, recruits student volunteers to conduct surveys and focus groups. They plan to use the data to create an advertising and social media campaign to discourage students from binge drinking and to produce a how-to guide for other universities.

Carleton University controls who is admitted to its undergraduate pub and what can be served there. “Thursday nights were like fight night,” said Ryan Flannagan, Carleton’s director of student affairs, as large numbers of non-Carleton patrons would flock to the pub. Carleton’s campus safety officers were routinely assaulted and Ottawa Police were often on site. When someone was stabbed six years ago, said Mr. Flannagan, “that was basically the last straw.”

Since then, Carleton students must sign in any off-campus guests to the pub, and only one at a time. In the pub, there is a ban on shots, a limit of one pitcher of beer per person and no sales of pitchers after midnight. Regular meetings with student union representatives and campus bar managers review incidents to identify what went wrong. The changes, though initially opposed by students, have turned things around. “It’s dramatically different,” Mr. Flannagan said. “It’s a safe place for students to go so they can have fun with their peers.”

Carleton is now developing a broader alcohol strategy to address responsible drinking on campus, with built-in accountability measures, said Mr. Flannagan. He would like to see a marketing campaign to educate students on what constitutes responsible drinking. Behavioural change takes time, but past efforts have helped reduce rates of both smoking and drinking and driving, he noted. “We need the same type of effort to combat binge drinking by students.”

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