Symposium to reduce alcohol abuse attracts diverse audience to find a solution

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Reducing high-risk alcohol use takes new ways of thinking and cooperation among multiple stakeholders, according to experts gathered Monday (Oct. 7) for a one-day symposium at Penn State.

The Alcohol, Campuses and Communities: Partnering for Solutions symposium drew approximately 250 people, including University administrators, law enforcement officers and students; State College law enforcement and government officials; and local tavern owners. The conference also attracted attendees from other higher education institutions, including University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Cornell University, Clemson University and University of Colorado, who said they were attending to learn what they could from the Penn State-State College partnership.

“Students entering college have increased freedom, increased access to alcohol, and decreased parental monitoring during a critical developmental time,” said John Hustad, assistant professor at Penn State College of Medicine and one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

He stated that rates of heavy drinking are highest for young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, and college students drink more alcohol than their peers who are not attending college. Approximately 32 percent of college students abstain in a typical month, but more attention often is given to the other 68 percent who drink, he said. Approximately 31 percent of students exhibit signs of alcohol abuse. Some college students also have other mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, and these conditions are often related to heavy alcohol use, according to Hustad.

“One of the strongest risk factors for heavy alcohol use is beliefs about how much their peers drink,” he said. “On average, students overestimate how much their close friends and other students drink and this influences their drinking. In addition, we find that incoming students drastically overestimate how much college students drink before they step foot on campus.”

Using scare tactics, telling students what to do and providing students only with educational information are not effective methods to reduce heavy drinking, according to Hustad. On the other hand, he said “heavy drinking students will reduce their alcohol use when it is in his or her best interest.” Such change can occur when students realize that alcohol use is interfering with their personal values and goals, he said.

Hustad praised Penn State’s efforts to help students succeed by making them aware of the discrepancies between their values and their current behavior.

“Penn State has implemented multiple empirically-based strategies on multiple levels and we have observed reduced rates of hazardous drinking. These efforts include PSU SAFE for incoming college students and the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program for students who violate campus alcohol policy, go to the hospital due to heavy alcohol use or are arrested by police on campus or in the surrounding area for alcohol-related offenses.” Both PSU SAFE and BASICS are offered by Student Affairs at Penn State.

These approaches provide students with personalized information about their alcohol use in a way that they may not have considered and, on average, students actually like this information, he said. For example, BASICS provides students with information about how much money they’ve spent on alcohol and the number of calories that the consumed through drinking. Students are also given tips to reduce the harms associated with heavy drinking, such as drinking slowly, refusing shots and spacing drinks over time.

Hustad said “We may have approaches that work for many students, but how do we make them better? Everyone in this room plays an important role in refining current approaches or developing new approaches because each of you has a unique view and each of you may have a solution. We will be at our best with teamwork, and that includes student involvement.”

There’s a story being told about alcohol and the college experience that needs to be revised, said the other keynote speaker, Thomas Workman, principal communications researcher and evaluator in the Health Program at the American Institutes for Research in Washington.

The current story presents drinking as a rite of passage. Websites glorify risky alcohol use by students, offering an outlet for drunk pics, and apps give students directions to and ratings of drinking parties.

According to Workman, those trying to make a difference need to examine their campus and community to learn what is practiced, what is tolerated, what is normal and what is expected.

“We are changing the story just by being here,” he said, “and the more you take away and the more you implement, the more you change the story.”

Change occurs, he said, when stakeholders -- those who affect or are affected by the environment -- are engaged as change agents in reducing the damage done by alcohol abuse. If there’s pushback that’s good, Workman said. It indicates that detrimental ways of thinking and practices are being challenged.

Universities should aim to create a safe environment that fosters students’ well-being “rather than contain the madness” caused by alcohol abuse.

The response can’t be thought of as a War on Binge Drinking, he said, because there isn’t an enemy, only people with self-interests.

“Come in with no preconceived notions about who is the hero and who is the villain,” he said. “That leaves you more open to hear perspectives.”

The conference grew out of efforts from Penn State’s collective of stakeholders, The Partnership: Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking, a collaboration with State College focused on weakening the annual State Patty’s Day drinking holiday.

Other presenters included Penn State human development and family studies professor Jennifer Maggs, who shared statistics on binge drinking, and Meg Small, assistant director for innovation and social change in The Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State, who discussed integrating research into practice to improve students’ well-being. Also, a panel discussion addressed the legal issues surrounding alcohol with emphasis on state police enforcement efforts, Greek-letter organizations and the responsibilities of a university as a whole.  

The Partnership: Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking, Penn State Student Affairs and the Penn State Future Fund sponsored the event, which was held in The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel on the University Park campus.

Last Updated October 16, 2013