The City of Ottawa has decided to tackle binge drinking among young adults, but I think their campaign is unlikely to be effective.
Indeed, drinking is a problem in the city. Binge drinking rose by nine per cent between 2000 and 2011 and causes 110 deaths and 970 hospitalizations per year among Ottawa adults, according to Ottawa Public Health. Three quarters of young adult males reported binge drinking, defined as more than five drinks in one sitting.
All this isn’t surprising. During frosh week, for example, drinking culture is celebrated among a fresh crop of students. University of Ottawa student organizers send willing first-years to Hull, Quebec where the drinking age is 18 and they can toast their new found freedom. While there are also non-drinking frosh events, turnout is low.
But binge drinking is a problem on many campuses, so why is my city getting involved? Do they really think that educational programs and a promotion of a “culture of moderation,” will help?
I don’t think a culture of moderation will fly with the campaign’s target audience. Students already know that drinking is dangerous and unhealthy. They’re reminded by a hangover the next morning. A poster or a stern reminder from a public health worker is not going to make them stop doing body shots or keg stands. Most students have a won’t-happen-to-me mentality. If anything, the warnings are likely to increase the sense of adventure that comes with defying grown-up rules.
Instead, campaigns against binge drinking should hit students where it hurts: their wallets. A study co-authored by Tim Stockwell from the University of Victoria looked at the effects of increasing prices of cheap but strong drinks sold in stores. The researchers found alcohol consumption decreased as the prices increased. While the study didn’t look at the effect of minimum alcohol pricing in bars or pubs, I bet it would work there too. Campus pubs may be the place to start.
The general consensus is that students are poor, but if they can buy five Jager Bombs for $3 each, it won’t break the bank. The key is to set a higher price on alcohol to make young adults see the effects of nights out on their bank accounts. Skipping a meal for a party is doable, but if a student can’t eat dinner for three days because he bought everyone shots, he’ll think twice next time.
Binge drinking should be avoided—the activity is dangerous. There’s a rise in reckless behavior, which can lead to hospitalizations, arrests or sexually transmitted diseases. But to be effective, an anti-binge drinking campaign would need to empty student wallets, and not just offer scare tactics.
Jane Lytvynenko is a student at the University of Ottawa and Ottawa Bureau Chief of the Canadian University Press.