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Tough college alcohol policies work

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When enforced, they lower rates of underage and heavy drinking

August 10, 2010

Boston, Mass. -- National surveys consistently document the problems caused by heavy alcohol use among college students, ranging from motor vehicle crashes to life-threatening alcohol poisoning. A study from Children's Hospital Boston finds that tough campus alcohol policies, if aggressively and consistently enforced, can reduce underage drinking and heavy episodic drinking on campus - without a "compensatory" rise in marijuana use.

"Policies can only work if they are sufficiently enforced," says Sion Kim Harris, PhD, CPH, of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research (CeASAR) at Children's, and the study's first author. "Our study adds to a growing body of evidence that alcohol control policies and strong policy enforcement can, over time, reduce underage high-risk drinking behaviors. We found that an aggressive enforcement stance by college leaders is particularly important to the success of these efforts."

The researchers, led by Harris and senior author John Knight, MD, director of CeASAR, surveyed students and administrators at 11 public colleges and universities in Massachusetts. The first survey, of 1,252 students, was done in 1999, one year after the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (MBHE) adopted a new, more restrictive alcohol policy. The second, allowing time for the policy to take effect, was conducted in 1,074 students in 2001.

The results were then compared, using reports from deans, campus security and students to gauge the level of enforcement, and adjusting the data for demographic changes in the student body. The researchers found declines from 1999 to 2001 in rates of any drinking during the past 30 days, as well as heavy episodic drinking and regular heavy drinking. Declines in heavy, episodic drinking were greatest when deans reported strict enforcement from the outset, and when deans reported a consistently high level of enforcement over time.

Among the specific findings, published online by the journal Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy last week:

  • The percentage of students under 21 reporting any drinking within the past 30 days declined from 72.5 to 63 percent.
  • Among students drinking within the past 30 days, the proportion of them who "usually" drank heavily declined from 67 to 57 percent.

Data indicate that many students take up heavy drinking when they arrive at college. According to the Monitoring the Future Survey and the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, about two in five students attending 4-year colleges in the U.S. report engaging in heavy episodic drinking (imbibing 4, 5 or more drinks at once within the past two weeks).

The Massachusetts policy, enacted after two highly publicized alcohol-related deaths, includes:

  • restricting alcohol to specific, supervised locations
  • requiring advance registration of all social events involving alcohol
  • allowing possession of alcohol only in separate dorms for students 21 or older
  • alcohol education and prevention programs
  • requiring colleges to work with local cities and towns to enforce alcohol laws
  • tough sanctions on violators, up to and including expulsion from school
  • parental notification of all alcohol policy violations by underage students
  • procedures for enforcement of all federal, state, local, and campus regulations.

Specifically, Harris says, schools should consistently implement alcohol control procedures, such as checking IDs and bags, at all occasions where alcohol is likely to be used. Requiring advance registration of all social events involving alcohol -- such as campus dances and concerts, sports events, Greek parties, dorm parties and homecomings -- will help to identify events that need such oversight and monitoring. In addition, adds Harris, schools need to follow through on sanctions such as parental notification and probation when drinking violations occur.

"Our survey findings are both important and timely," says Knight. "During recent years a group of well-intentioned but, we believe, misguided college officials have called for a national reconsideration of the legal drinking age of 21. At the same time, emerging science is showing how harmful alcohol is to the developing brain, and that brain development continues into the third decade of life. Reducing drinking by those under 21 is not meant to deprive them, but to protect them; we have no spare sons or daughters to lose."

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services.

Erin McColgan

Children's Hospital Boston is one of the nation's premier pediatric medical centers. Founded in 1869 as a 20-bed hospital for children, today it is a 396-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. Children's is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, the largest provider of health care to the children of Massachusetts, and home to the world's leading pediatric research enterprise. For more information about Children's, visit:

We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

Boston Children's Hospital 300 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115 617-355-6000 | 800-355-7944