Board learns about Penn State's plan to combat high-risk drinking

March 18, 2005

Hershey, Pa. -- Penn State is a leader in environmental management approaches to address problem drinking among its students, said Dennis Heitzmann, director of The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), to the Board of Trustees today (March 18) at their meeting on the campus of Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

"High-risk drinking among students may be one of the greatest challenges facing institutions of higher education," said Heitzmann. However, the University has spearheaded efforts to combat problem drinking through what is called the environmental management approach. This approach relies on partnering with the local community to address elements on campus or in town that trigger or support binge drinking.

Before explaining the specifics of Penn State's approach, Heitzmann highlighted the negative impacts of high-risk drinking, citing both national and local statistics.

National trends in problem drinking show that many students can cite instances where excessive drinking has disturbed the quality of their educational experience by affecting sleep, study or attendance in class. More critically, though, excessive drinking has been linked to increases in physical and sexual assaults, promiscuity and unprotected sex, and traffic accidents. An estimated 1,400 American college students die of alcohol-related deaths every year as the result of alcohol poisoning, fatal accidents and student suicides, in which the depressant effects of alcohol may play a part.

Heitzmann highlighted some local trends, as well. On Penn State's University Park campus, the most recent Penn State Pulse Survey on student drinking confirmed the percentage of frequent high-risk drinkers or students who reported having binged three or more times during a two-week period was slightly lower since a 2003 survey, but it was higher than what was reported in 2001 and 2002. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in a row for women and five or more drinks in a row for men.

Of the nearly 1,500 students polled in the Pulse Survey, a significant percentage indicated negative experiences as a result of their own drinking, including having a hangover, missing class or doing something that they later regretted.

Facing these realities, Penn State has put forth concerted efforts to be a leader in addressing problem drinking through environmental management.

Heitzmann explained that it's hard for students to say "no" to binge drinking when their environment appears to affirm negative behaviors. The promotion of alcohol consumption through such methods as beverage advertising, alcohol party vans parked conspicuously in college towns and the promotion of happy hours sends students mixed messages and makes it difficult for them to shun the culture of drinking.

Penn State partners with the local community to address these environmental triggers through two primary vehicles: The Commission for the Prevention of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Abuse (CPATODA) and The Partnership: The Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking.

CPATODA is a mix of student leaders, faculty and staff whose mission is to foster an environment that does not support the abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. It serves as an advisory group to Student Affairs; evaluates the efficacy of campus programs, policies and procedures; and recommends initiatives that lead to improved lifestyle choices.

Penn State's second vehicle for change -- The Partnership -- is a group of University- and community-based leaders, as well as representatives from the Bar Owners and Tavern Association. "The mission is to engage and involve all sectors of the Centre Region in order to change the Penn State and community culture to reduce high-risk consumption of alcohol," Heitzmann said.

While Penn State has an estimated $200,000 earmarked specifically for alcohol initiatives, there are countless other resources associated with the University's efforts imbedded in departmental allotments across the University and throughout Penn State's 24 campuses. Efforts range from early education through freshman orientation programs to multiple, systemwide educational speakers and programs and advocating for legislative change and counseling for students with drinking problems.

"Penn State continues to be concerned about the problem of high-risk drinking," said Heitzmann. "We are doing many good things, but the nature of the effort requires constant monitoring, creative thinking, energetic program delivery, and resources to continue the effort. We cannot let down in our efforts to educate a continuing cascade of new and vulnerable students."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009