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Together, Colleges and Communities can Reduce Alcohol-related Harm to Students

Update Date: Jul 27, 2012 10:46 AM EDT

In 2009, 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 died from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes and 696,000 students were assaulted by another student who was been drinking.

Now, researchers have looked at a series of coordinated strategies that address alcohol availability, alcohol policy enforcement and drinking norms that can help colleges and their communities protect students from the harms of high-risk drinking.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and is online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

According to the researchers, benefits of the intervention extended campus-wide, could affect not only the drinkers themselves but also those around them. Researchers say alcohol-related injuries caused by students decreased by 50 percent on participating campuses.  

Acting Director of the NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Kenneth Warren said the study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that strategic changes to the environment on campus and in the surrounding community can have an impact on high-risk drinking and its consequences among college students.

The study was led by Mark Wolfson, professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

Wolfson and his team examined environmental approaches that had shown promise in communities but had not been rigorously studied on college campuses.

Using a community organizing approach, five universities in North Carolina put together coalitions comprised of campus administrators, faculty and staff, students, and community members who developed a strategic plan for each campus. Five similar universities in the state that did not implement the intervention were used for comparison.

Wolfson said curbing college drinking is everyone's responsibility.

"We realized that high-risk drinking is not just a campus problem, and it's not just a community problem," Wolfson said. "You have to look at the entire ecosystem."

Some campuses restricted the provision of alcohol to underage or intoxicated students, increased or improved coordination between campus and community police and established consistent disciplinary actions resulting from policy violations.

"It is particularly noteworthy that this combined campus/community effort not only reduced harms personally experienced by the drinker, but also harms resulting from others' alcohol misuse," Ralph Hingson, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at NIAAA, said.

For three years, investigators surveyed students about their drinking habits and resulting harms and found small but statistically significant decreases in two categories: severe consequences experienced by the student due to their own drinking and alcohol-related injuries caused to others.

On campuses participating in the intervention, the number of students reporting severe consequences decreased from 18 percent to 16 percent, while rates remained unchanged on comparison campuses. Reports of injuring another person while drinking decreased from 4 percent to 2 percent on participating campuses, with a smaller and nonsignificant decrease observed at the comparison universities. 

After several years of implementation, the researchers believe these modest reductions in harm will translate into many students being helped by the intervention.

Researchers estimate that on a campus of 11,000 students, the intervention will result in 228 fewer students experiencing at least one severe consequence of drinking over the course of a month and 107 fewer students injuring others due to alcohol use during the year.

"This is the basic principle of public health - small changes at the population level can translate into significant improvements in the health of a population," Wolfson said.

However, researchers did not that the level of drinking remained stagnant.

 "One possibility is that while the level of drinking may not have changed, students who did drink may have been more aware of law enforcement and potential penalties," Wolfson said.  "This approach worked in this study to reduce some of the important negative consequences of high risk drinking. I think we're now accumulating evidence that this family of approaches can be helpful to colleges."

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