College campuses face the sobering truth of binge drinking

By Kelli Whitlock

It's midnight on a chilly Saturday in Athens and lines are forming outside several of the bars located just beyond Ohio University's College Gate. By 1 a.m., one of the mor e popular bars is filled to capacity and there's little room for maneuvering.

Sitting at the end of the bar, a young woman waves a cigarette as she struggles to balance herself on a barstool. Oblivious to the hot ash dangling too close to the man next to her, she tries to speak, but her words are slurred. She finishes her beer and orders another. The bartender ignores her inebriated state, places a new bottle in front of her, and she drinks.

It's a scene familiar to Lola Oliver, a senior b usiness major at Ohio University, who predicts what might happen next: The young woman will drink herself into a stupor, probably become sick, fall asleep, and awake to a nasty hangover. If she's lucky, that's all that will happen. If she's not, she may hurt herself or wind up in the company of someone who would do her harm.

There was a time, Oliver says, when she was that young woman, drinking beyond the point of excess and suffering the regrets that followed. The defining moment for Oliv er occurred on a weekend in 1994. She began drinking Friday afternoon and was drunk when she and her friends arrived at the first of what would be several Uptown Athens bars. Many shots, beers and drinks later, she somehow made it home and passed out. The next morning, she awoke confused and ill, remembering very little from the night before. Her leg was bruised, her head hurt and her stomach churned. She was sick for two days.

"It was pretty frightening, but I know I was lucky," recalls Oliver, who says her priorities have changed since that experience. "It took me awhile to realize that being stumbling, falling-down drunk wasn't a good way to be."

According to a 1994 Harvard University survey of 17,000 students at 140 colleges, 44 percent of college students binge drink at least once every two weeks. For men, researchers say that means consuming five or more drinks at one sitting; for women, it's four or more drinks.

The number of binge drinkers may be higher at Ohio University : A survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research released this past fall suggests 61 percent of students on the Athens campus binge drink. The study has its critics, many of whom find fault in the definition of binge drinking. But no one is denying that some students at Ohio University haven't learned when to say, "When."

During the fall quarter, 43 Ohio University students were treated at O'Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens for alcohol-related injuries or illnesses. In the 1996-97 academic year, University Judiciaries processed 1,449 cases involving alcohol-related offenses -- 79 percent of its total case load.

"The problems associated with illegal use and abusive consumption of alcohol are not problems unique to any campus or, for that matter, unique to the college scene," says Joel Rudy, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. "Reports of student deaths, injury and attempts to legislate or control illegal and abusive drinking are keeping the focus on wh at we have long felt to be a serious problem on our campuses."

Making the social scene

The first step in addressing excessive alcohol use is acknowledging that abusive drinking habits are symptoms of a larger problem, says Stephanie Dorgan, assistant director for health and wellness at Ohio University. Students who drink too much may be suffering from depression or stress, and use alcohol as a coping mechanism. Some succumb to peer pressure, which can be a more powerful influence for students in social organizations such as clubs, fraternities or sororities (see related story).

Like many institutions, Ohio University has tried several approaches to deter students from drinking heavily, but the problem continues. One reason for the lack of success, Dorgan says, may be that these programs have not tried to tackle the real culprit -- a society that accepts and often encourages binge drinking.

At the University of Virginia, seniors part icipate in the "fourth-year fifth" ritual, drinking a fifth of liquor in one day or night. At Florida State University, 21-year-olds celebrate their birthday with the "Tennessee Waltz," getting free drinks from bars on Tennessee Street in Tallahassee. And at OU, coming of age is marked by the "Court Street Shuffle," a drink in each of 22 Uptown bars.

National studies suggest that the number of college students who drink hasn't risen in recent years, but some suspect the amount of alcohol being co nsumed has increased. For most of the nation's campuses, finding ways to reach problem drinkers appears daunting. But it's a challenge Dorgan, Oliver, Rudy and others on the Athens campus have decided to accept.

All are members of the Ohio University Binge Drinking Prevention Coalition, a project that began a little over a year ago to address student binge drinking. Support for the coalition is widespread -- members include university administrators and faculty, students, local bar owners, and the president of Athens City Council. Membership has grown from about 20 people to more than 50 since the organization was founded.

Advocating the responsible use of alcohol, coalition members are working to change the campus environment from one where binge drinking is socially acceptable to one that encourages more responsible behavior, says Dorgan, chair of the coalition. The group meets regularly and exchanges information through an electronic listserv. Ideas have included everything from an alc ohol-free dance hall Uptown to substance-free housing to a mandatory freshman class that teaches students to make better life decisions.

Photo: Sam Girton

"The coalition isn't anti-alcohol," Dorgan explains. "Prohibition has never worked, and we all accept that alcohol is part of our lives. Most people can use this substance responsibly, and that's what we support."

In the past, other projects on campus and in the community have attempted to deter binge drinking, Dorgan says, but unifying these efforts through the coalition will broaden their impact.

That concept is behind several state-wide efforts to address binge drinking, including an Ohio Parents for a Drug-Free Youth committee focusing on binge drinking, co-chaired by Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., dean of OU's College of Osteopathic Medicine. And Rudy and other campus representatives on the Inter-University Council of Ohio ar e working together to increase awareness about the problems of binge drinking. The IUC represents Ohio's 13 state-assisted universities.

Freshman year can be intoxicating

As if starting college isn't overwhelming enough, freshmen also have to adjust to the intoxicating freedom they feel when they arrive on campus. Many are tempted to try new things and find the appeal of alcohol too strong to resist. While the university's alcohol policy is clear about underage drinking -- an under age student caught drinking could face a reprimand or, in extreme cases, expulsion -- enforcing these rules is difficult.

Much of the drinking takes place off campus, Dorgan says, at private house parties or in Uptown bars. While Dorgan suspects more binge drinking goes on at house parties than in bars, intervening in the private parties is almost impossible.

All bars are required to check their patrons' identification, but students say some bars don't check IDs closely, if they check the m at all.

"Underage drinking and binge drinking go hand-in-hand," Dorgan says. "Most bar owners try to enforce the drinking age, but that doesn't always happen."

Taking a tough stand isn't easy for bar owners, but it is important, says Bill Cash, co-owner of the Court Street bar Night Court. In what many say was a risky move, Cash decided to open Night Court to people age 18 and older on Wednesday nights during the winter, offering them a peek at Uptown nightlife in an alcohol-free environ ment.

He offered karaoke and nonalcoholic "mock-tails" in the upstairs portion of his tavern, while the downstairs bar operated as usual. Although Cash's gesture was admired by coalition members, the event was not well-attended. After five weeks, he decided to take a step back and look at other ways to promote the idea of a nonalcohol event.

"We can't sit back and do nothing," Cash says. "We'd rather be part of the solution than part of the problem."

University officials already hav e taken several steps to address the binge drinking problem on campus: The administration no longer authorizes the sale or distribution of alcohol at events open to the public. Other alcohol policies have been tightened. Students have access to on-campus substance abuse treatment programs.

Residence Life has expanded its number of substance-free activities and also plans to promote more interaction among students in the residence halls.

"Students aren't any different than they were 30 year s ago. They want to be social," says Joe Burke, director of residence life. "We need to create more social settings on campus, and give them something fun and entertaining to do that doesn't involve alcohol."

Rudy believes a new student center to replace an outdated Baker Center would go a long way toward providing a new social gathering place for students. OU's capital priority list for the 2001-2002 biennium includes $2.5 million to plan a new student services center.

Campus & commun ity problem

Anyone who's attended college knows that binge drinking crosses campus and community boundaries, and anyone who's tried to prevent the problem knows it can't be done in isolation, says Guy Philips, BA '82, president of Athens City Council and a member of the Binge Drinking Prevention Coalition.

He and other city officials have been criticized for their support of the annual Athens Halloween festival, an event that draws up to 30,000 people. In the past, the weekend party ha s resulted in hundreds of arrests, most for alcohol-related offenses. To address the excessive drinking problem, event organizers have placed added emphasis on Halloween programming that doesn't involve alcohol, including costume contests, entertainment and food vendors.

But in the end, the success of the effort begun by coalition members may lie in the hands of university students. Coalition member John Dies, a sophomore in pre-dentistry, is cautiously optimistic. If enough people help create a healthier environment, he says, it's possible his 10th -- or maybe even his fifth -- college reunion will be held on a campus where most students celebrate coming of age with 21 candles, not 21 beers.

Kelli Whitlock is editor of Perspectives, Ohio University's new magazine of research and scholarly activity.

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