Battling the binge

Inside the war against risky drinking on campus
Mark Peterson/Redux

From the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings

When outraged members of Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Tennessee called a news conference in September to protest the suspension of their fraternity due to allegations of strange and excessive alcohol abuse, two words sprang to mind: Animal House. The news conference, immortalized on YouTube, is so unintentionally bizarre that it could be mistaken for an outtake from the subversive 1978 frat-boy comedy that launched a million toga parties and countless hangovers. The press conference—featuring a bow-tied, dead-serious Southern lawyer backed by an angelic legion of fraternity members in their Sunday suits—was called to refute allegations that one of their own, 20-year-old Alexander P. Broughton, had indulged in “butt-chugging” massive quantities of wine. While there was no denying that Broughton was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning after a night of fraternity drinking games, the idea of an alcohol enema is “repulsive” to Broughton, his lawyer said. “He is a straight man.”

Lost in the general weirdness of that news conference is the fact that Broughton’s blood-alcohol level—“well over” 0.40 per cent, according to police—could have killed him without medical intervention. As for Animal House, one false note in an undeniably funny movie is that nobody dies. In the real world, alcohol abuse is a campus killer. More than 1,800 U.S. college students die every year from alcohol-related injuries, including vehicle accidents, and an estimated 600,000 are injured, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. There are no comparable statistics for Canada, but there are names and faces, and ample evidence of the impact of high-risk drinking—a plague that Canadian universities are determined to bring under control.

In September 2011, 19-year-old Jonathan Andrews died after a night of dormitory-room drinking games during his first week at Acadia University. He’d told his parents in Calgary his hope was to make as many friends as possible during those important early weeks at the Wolfville, N.S., campus. In 2010, two students died in alcohol-related accidents at Queen’s University. Cameron Bruce fell out of a sixth-floor window of the Victoria Hall residence during orientation week. That December, Habib Khan was killed after falling through a rooftop skylight at Duncan McArthur Hall. At St. Thomas University in Fredericton, rookie volleyball player Andrew Bartlett, 21, died in a fall down a flight of stairs in October 2010 after a team initiation party.

Then there are unquantified alcohol-related vehicle deaths and injuries, sexual assaults, accidental pregnancies, fights, arrests and academic suspensions. In March 2012, Fanshawe College in London, Ont., was thrust into the media spotlight after a booze-soaked St. Patrick’s Day party on nearby Fleming Drive degenerated into a riot, causing some $500,000 in property damage. Many rioters had no ties to Fanshawe, but the damage is done, says Zack Dodge, 25, student union president at the college. “Pretty much from March until now [the school has] been in reputation-recovery mode.” The same can be said of Acadia, which is instituting a dramatic series of initiatives to shift student culture in the wake of last year’s tragedy. “Any school that says they don’t have alcohol as an issue is kidding themselves,” says 21-year-old Matthew Rios, president of Acadia’s student union.

Schools are crafting strategies to reduce the harms inherent in high-risk drinking, but it is no small challenge to overcome student resistance to what many see as a rite of passage. For many undergrads, university is a chance to slip the parental bonds; alcohol is seen as taste of freedom, a symbol of sophistication, an essential social ingredient. “It is increasingly difficult in Western society to envision having a ‘good time’ without alcohol being a de facto requirement,” writes Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer for Nova Scotia, in a report requested by Acadia after the tragedy, titled Reducing alcohol harms among university students: A summary of best practices. “University administrations have a critical role to play, not only because alcohol can damage a student’s life,” the report says. “Failure to undertake a concerted, well-informed and sustained effort to address alcohol problems may also negatively impact a university’s reputation, academic ranking, operating costs, and relationship with the community.”

No university seriously advocates alcohol prohibition. Some 85 per cent of students drank long before they reached post-secondary schools, says Ryan Flannagan, director of student affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “With students, where there’s a will, there’s a way.” It’s dialling back levels of harmful drinking that are the priority. Statistics compiled by Strang’s team show a third of Canadian university students drink heavily at least once a month. In Nova Scotia, where the general population has among the highest binge drinking rates in the country, 51 per cent of university students drink to excess at least once a month. Often the pattern of high-risk drinking—usually defined as five drinks per male or four per female in the span of a few hours—is set earlier in life. Newfoundland has the highest rate of binge drinking—30 per cent, among students Grades 7 to 12, with Nova Scotia second at 28 per cent. In Ontario, 22 per cent of high school students drink heavily at least once a month.

Young women are now drinking on par with men, though they are at more risk of sexual assault, twice as likely to be taking prescription medications that could interact with alcohol and more prone to “drunkorexia”—restricting food intake to save calories for drinking, the report says.

Of course university administrators’ admonishments and horror stories about drinking are often dismissed as just the ineffective bleating of yet more killjoy adults. Student buy-in is essential, though sometimes it requires a strong administrative hand to force the issue. Queen’s has banned its homecoming events since 2009, infamous for over-the-top partying that spilled off-campus and onto city streets. It joined schools like Western, Guelph and Acadia in policing a ban on alcohol in residence rooms during orientation week, and added a host of dry events to emphasize that a blood-alcohol level isn’t essential to university life. In a far-sighted year-round initiative, Queen’s operates a Campus Observation Room, “a confidential, safe, non-judgmental place to sober up,” and a welcome alternative to a police drunk tank.

At Carleton, bingeing had turned Oliver’s Bar on campus into a “gong show,” with campus security and city police regularly called to break up fights. “It was kind of like the Queen’s situation, where the pubs and parties had become so legendary that people from outside the [university] community were coming to the bar because they wanted to see the show,” says Flannagan. The last straw came when a patron was stabbed—“with a pen, of all things,” Flannagan points out.

The university, which held the liquor licence for the student-run bar, threatened to shut it down if the student union failed to restore order. After acrimonious negotiations, the union brought in a professional bar/restaurant manager and instituted measures in 2009 now becoming standard at many student pubs: student cards checked at the door by a card reader; a limit of one outside guest per student; no shooters; no beer pitchers after 12 a.m.; a limit of two drinks per person at a time; risk management training for bar staff. Since a “university generation” basically changes every four years, most of today’s students have never known anything else but the current set of rules. These days, Carleton’s student union meetings are largely positive affairs, where the biggest recent issue related to Oliver’s Bar was a need to better monitor the outdoor smoking area.

The most effective policies are crafted with student input from the start. At Fanshawe, enlightened self-interest has fostered a good relationship between the administration and student leaders. Unfairly or not, the riot tainted the reputation of graduates looking for jobs, students looking for co-op placements or off-campus housing, and alarmed parents, says Dodge. He and his executive took a lead in working with the administration, police and the neighbouring community. In fact, he recently took part in a conference call discussing measures to keep Halloween activities from going off the rails—both on and off campus. “It might as well be their parents telling them not to party if you’ve got bylaw officers and police officers rolling through,” he says. “They want to deal with someone they can relate to.”

Perhaps no school has responded as quickly and effectively as Acadia. Andrews’ death cast a pall over staff and the close-knit 3,500-member student body. Students and administration began formal meetings within weeks to look at alcohol policies. The provincial health ministry was commissioned to write its best-practices report. James Sanford, Acadia’s student director, sent a letter to parents of newly enrolled students this August outlining new alcohol restrictions, and urging them to talk to their kids about drinking before students leave home.

Acadia signed on as the only Canadian school among 31 U.S. colleges in the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, an information-gathering co-operative launched last year to use evidence-based measures to assess prevention programs for high-risk drinking. As part of the effort, students at Acadia are answering voluntary, anonymous online surveys of alcohol-related experiences. Sample questions: Did you do something that you regretted? Did you forget where you were, what you did? Were you a victim/perpetrator of sexual assault?

Darren Kruisselbrink, a professor in Acadia’s kinesiology department, gathers data for the collaborative. Initially he found an unsettling number of reported sexual assaults, unwanted sexual advances and thoughts of suicide. While it’s too early to call it a trend, those serious impacts seem to have declined, while “I had a mild hangover” remains a perennial survey response.

Students are also more likely to report that they took responsibility for a drunken friend or urged them to stop or slow their drinking. That may be due to the Red and Blue Crew, a promising student initiative that began at Acadia this fall. Volunteers take a six-hour training program that teaches CPR, skills to identify medical emergencies, and techniques for defusing risky situations. Those who complete the program sport wristbands in the school colours of red and blue. “It’s a peer support network,” says Matthew Rios, Acadia’s student union president. “It’s certainly not asking for prohibition,” he notes. “If there’s an issue, or people are concerned about a friend, they can reach out to you.”

Other Canadian schools are showing interest in the program. Perhaps it can be a legacy of a young life cut short. “Out of every terrible, horrible thing that comes up,” says Rios, “there’s room to grow.”