Focus on excessive drinking: We must work together to curb drinking

February 23, 2010

Editor's note: The following column appeared in the Centre Daily Times yesterday (Feb. 22), and is reprinted with permission. The column speaks to the town-gown partnership that is trying to raise the visibility of the very serious problems of underage and excessive drinking, in the hopes of having an impact. This is a problem shared by colleges and universities across the nation and all are searching for ways to curb this dangerous behavior.

By Tom King and Dana Leonard

Does every community have these tragedies?

• Drunken driver strikes and kills drunk pedestrian

• 19-year-old falls 33 feet; blood alcohol concentration: .21 percent

• Missing 18-year-old found dead, BAC .169 percent

• 20-year-old drunken driver kills one, seriously injures one

Over the past decade, have you noticed an increase in alcohol-fueled tragedies in the local news? Have you noticed that one more “drinking holiday” has been added to the community’s calendar as a result of an unsanctioned, Facebook-organized initiative? Have you noticed the size of drinking parties in our neighborhoods?

Have you noticed the record number of drunken driving arrests in Centre County? Have you or your family been to the emergency room on a weekend night and witnessed the very drunk patients? Have you or do you know someone who has experienced a home “invasion” by a very drunken person believing to be at his or her own home?

Yes, there is evidence to suggest that you have likely observed the above and more. In State College borough, more than 60 percent of reported criminal offenses are alcohol fueled.

State Patty’s Day weekend alone last year resulted in a substantial number of alcohol-fueled police incidents -- higher than our busiest football weekends the year prior.

As shown in the accompanying chart, there were 79 criminal arrests that included 14 drunken driving arrests and 21 other people who required emergency medical services because of alcohol overdose.

Unfortunately, the impact of underage and excessive drinking is a serious problem throughout the year in our community and not just during sanctioned or unsanctioned special events. Police encounter large underage drinking parties in residential neighborhoods. More than 900 drunken drivers were arrested in Centre County last year, and many of those DUI arrests had alarmingly high blood-alcohol concentration levels.

Last academic year, a record high 586 Penn State students were treated at Mount Nittany Medical Center for alcohol overdose, a 32 percent increase over the previous year. Not only has the number of students treated at the local hospital increased, but the average blood-alcohol level for those students has been rising for the past five years with the average now more than three times the legal limit. Underage drinking and excessive drinking are not just problems at the collegiate level, but evidence exists that some Centre County high school students are also engaging in this dangerous and illegal activity.

Underage and excessive drinking fuel most of the police calls for service and most of the criminal offenses and consume most of the cost of policing this community. The problem is pervasive and affects the health of individuals and the quality of life for the State College/Penn State community.

Much of the data suggest the drinking culture is worse today than it was a decade ago. What is troubling and quite challenging is identifying effective strategies to address this issue when many believe there is a growing drinking culture that supports underage and excessive drinking.

Many individuals and organizations in Centre County are working very hard to address this issue. Penn State is doing a great deal, as evidenced by the many implemented programs highlighted in this series last month. Many Penn State student organizations recently have expressed a real desire to be part of developing strategies to address this problem, which is very encouraging.

More than 200 people attended a Public Issues Forum on alcohol in November and offered many good ideas. The Centre County school districts as well as the Centre Region CARE Partnership and Centre County Communities That Care are concerned and are working to address this problem. We know firsthand that State College police and the borough are doing a great deal on this issue. Just last month, Centre County implemented a special court designed to more effectively respond to repeat drunken driving offenders.

However, despite all of the efforts by so many in Centre County, much more must be done to have a noticeable and lasting impact on underage and excessive drinking and the problems resulting from it. At the November Public Issues Forum on alcohol, the community discussion centered on three possible approaches to the problem: Do we treat this as a public health threat? Is more education needed? And should we strengthen and enforce the law?

We need to pursue all three approaches and then some. However, before addressing these approaches, it is critical to identify who must be involved in developing solutions to the underage and excessive drinking problem.

It is imperative that the entire community mobilize to be successful. That means Penn State, local government, state legislators, schools, businesses, social service organizations, liquor license establishments, businesses, faith-based organizations, residents, parents and students. Students -- Penn State and high school students -- have so much to offer in this discussion and undoubtedly have the greatest ability to effect lasting change.

Two excellent examples of student involvement are the recent actions taken by two major Penn State student organizations, the Interfraternity Council and the University Park Undergraduate Association, regarding the planned State Patty’s Day on Saturday. Both organizations have taken unprecedented action within their organizations to reduce and denounce excessive drinking on State Patty’s Day.

The actions taken by these and other Penn State student groups were extraordinary and depict the power students possess to change conditions one action at a time. Eventually such positive steps can change the negative drinking culture that exists here and in many college communities.

Let recent forums and this series on underage and excessive drinking become the impetus or springboard for community-wide involvement to develop solutions. Every community member has something to offer, so it is merely a question of your interest and willingness to help reduce the tragic outcomes of underage and dangerous drinking and the culture that too often supports it.

Changing what people view to be socially normal and acceptable is a daunting task, but it can be accomplished. Changing social norms can take a generation, so it requires a long-term commitment. Despite this, we must start now. If we wait, this issue will be passed down to the next generation.

Now is the time for leadership. Now is the time for all of us to act for the health and safety of those who live, work and visit here.

But what can be done this week? We urge everyone to be committed to a drunk-free, crime-free and tragedy-free State Patty’s Day.

Taking the lead from the IFC, UPUA and other student organizations, be committed to responsible consumption of alcohol and discourage friends from engaging in excessive drinking this weekend.

Pledge this weekend not to get drunk or to let your friends get drunk. Once this is accomplished, we can focus on the next steps.

Chief Tom King and Capt. Dana Leonard are with State College police.

Last Updated February 23, 2010