Experts discuss hard alcohol policy

by Noah Goldstein | 3/3/16 8:32pm

This is the second in a two-part series examining the College’s hard alcohol policy. The first piece was published yesterday.

When College President Phil Hanlon announced the ban on hard alcohol as part of his “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative a year ago, a discussion in higher education resurfaced: does banning hard alcohol “eliminate high-risk behavior” — one of the primary goals of Hanlon’s policy initiative?

Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the director of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said that said that there has been no systematic research as to whether or not hard alcohol bans are effective at curbing drinking. These types of policies are relatively new, he said, and determining the effectiveness of these policies requires multiple years of data.

To Toben Nelson, the co-director of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, the primary issue in addressing college drinking is ease of access. In his opinion, the most effective policies are ones that restrict access or increase the price of alcohol.

White echoed this sentiment.

“When alcohol is cheap and easily available, people drink more and they drink more often,” White said. “If it is cheap and you can easily get it, people tend to do it and so most of the policies that work seem to work by reducing access and increasing price.”

Nationwide, about four out of five students will drink alcohol while at college, according to statistics from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Out of students who drink, half also binge drink, or consume alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration levels over 0.08 grams per deciliter. This correlates with about four drinks for women or five drinks for men in the span of two hours.

According to a 2001 study led by the CAS principal Henry Wechsler, 29.1 percent of students that attend universities that ban all forms of alcohol abstained from drinking entirely, compared to 16.1 percent of students at schools with no bans. At schools with full bans, 38.4 percent of students were classified as “heavy episodic drinkers,” while schools with no ban had 47.8 percent of students fall into that category. The study shows that even completely banning hard alcohol does not decrease binge drinking to zero on college campuses, White noted.

Weschler’s study also compared first-hand and second-hand consequences of alcohol at colleges that banned all alcohol and those that did not. Actions like driving after drinking, missing a class or damaging property were considered first-hand effects, while taking care of a drunken student, being insulted, or being a survivor of sexual assault were considered second-hand effects. The overall level of first-hand and second-hand alcohol related consequences were similar on campuses with and without bans, and White said that this shows how difficult it is to prevent behaviors like binge drinking on college campuses.

The data suggests that banning hard liquor probably is unlikely to have a big impact on overall levels of binge drinking, though the ban could still minimize some harm, White said.

“It would be irrational to assume that banning one type of alcoholic beverage on a campus is going to prevent all binge drinking, because banning all alcohol on a campus does not reduce it that much,” White said.

He added that when measuring a college drinking policy, however, other numbers — like deaths and hospital transports — should be taken into account.

The NIAAA established a college alcohol intervention matrix, which ranks policies aiming to reduce underage and excessive drinking at colleges by effectiveness and cost. Restricting happy hours and price promotions, retaining a ban on Sunday alcohol sales, increasing the alcohol tax and retaining and enforcing a drinking age of 21 are the most highly effective strategies, according to the NIAAA’s intervention matrix. Banning hard liquor on campus is not a strategy listed.

Nelson said that the drink of choice for college students has historically been cheap beer, but recently, an increasing number of college students have been choosing to drink hard alcohol.

In 2014, White and Ralph Hingson published a paper on excessive alcohol consumption on college campuses. They found lower overall levels of binge drinking at colleges over time, down from 44 percent in 1980 to 36 percent in 2011.

However, they found an increase in the number of alcohol-related hospitalizations in young adults According to the study, between 1998 to 2008, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of 18-24 year olds who were hospitalized for alcohol overdoses without any other drugs involved.

White noted that he was unsure if this effect was due to an increase in the extent of extreme drinking among students or due to students being more willing to call for ambulances.

However, all of this adds up to a change where, while there is an overall decrease in binge drinking, those who do are more heavily intoxicated, White said.

A variety of other universities, many similar to Dartmouth in location, size and focus on the liberal arts, have a hard alcohol ban in place. Amherst College, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Colgate University, the University of Notre Dame, Stanford University, Swarthmore College, Washington University in St. Louis and Williams College all prohibit the consumption of hard alcohol on campus.

There is not one “magic bullet” policy that eradicates all alcohol-related problems on college campuses, White said. Change usually comes from an array of policies that are enforced by schools.

Senior associate dean of student affairs Liz Agosto said that the ban is just one part of a multi-pronged approach, making it is hard to pinpoint just one part of Moving Dartmouth Forward and say “that was effective.”

“It is way too early for us to say mission accomplished, but we are seeing positive trends in terms of health and safety for students,” Agosto said.

At Dartmouth, Agosto said that she would look at a lot of different sources of data moving forward with respect to the ban, such as judicial affairs or AlcoholEdu ­— an online alcohol safety instruction program taken by incoming freshmen. She said that she does not want to rely on student satisfaction data, as it is not a core part of how the policy should be viewed. She added that this is not to say that student voices do not matter, but there are other numbers that should be taken into account, such as the decrease in alcohol transports.