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Friday, September 16, 2016

Hard liquor, hard questions

Though hard alcohol is banned in dorms, on and off campus seniors still get a reminder to pace their drinking.
"Trinity should restore full alcoholic freedoms to students of age and end the prohibition against students of age and end the prohibition against hard alcohol in the upperclassmen residence halls."
- Gabriel Levine, Trinitonian, September 10, 2016

I enjoyed the opinion piece, "Let there be Liquor," that ran in the Trinitonian recently. Seems as long as there is alcohol I will always have something to post about. In a nutshell, Gabriel Levine argued that our rule banning hard alcohol should be reconsidered. I checked out Gabriel on Facebook and he has many "friends" I like, so I know he isn't a knucklehead (if that is how one measures knucklehead qualities). I emailed him and asked if his column was serious (it was) or was meant to be funny or farcical (kind of).

A professor on the rule-making committee at Trinity once said to me "I'm in favor of rule that slows down students getting drunk." This flies in the face of what Gabriel is saying, which is, I think, Students are going to drink anyways, and of-age students want hard alcohol (and you can't stop us).

I don't totally disagree. Years ago the Trinity Alcohol Coalition laid out its three philosophical pillars that stand today: acknowledging student drinking; caring deeply about student health and safety; and enforcing policies as proscribed by law.

The Coalition did good work and the harm-reduction model was chosen as a way to deal with alcohol. The results included serving beer and wine to students on campus (see August senior happy hour in Coates lobby as one of many examples); the addition of  pub (which failed, but the license now resides in the Skyline Room); Tiger tailgates; the responsible friend (Good Samaritan) policy; the B'low Optimal/Optimal Buzz program; and most recently the revised off-campus SPIn initiative.

When the Coalition developed the pillars and revised the alcohol policy years ago, I also wondered whether or not the hard alcohol ban was effective. Hard alcohol is lawful for those of age and we acknowledge students will drink it. At the time, President Brazil felt strongly that the ban should remain in place because students generally used hard alcohol to get drunker faster. Essentially, the pillar in question was about student health and safety. He obliged the students and staff who asked to research the issue and present their findings. We didn't have to. My good colleague, Dr. Richard Reams, in Counseling Services, did some of that research and re-sent me his records after he read Mr. Levine's column. What we learned undermined our case, and though it is dated, is still compelling:

Essentially, those who didn't have a hard alcohol ban wished they did. With students routinely hospitalized with alcohol poisonings, the most consistent culprit was doing shots.

  • "Within the 10 years I have been (here) every single alcohol poisoning incident (100%) that required a transport to the emergency room involved the over-consumption of hard liquor (in addition to other types of alcohol in some cases as well). We are in the process of reviewing the role of hard liquor on our campus and we are looking to limit the use and availability because we see it as such a high-risk variable." 
  • 49 of 51 cases of alcohol poisoning during a single semester of the 2001-2002 academic year involved distilled alcohol
  • When (we) banned hard alcohol in the res halls in 2002, alcohol poisoning decreased 61% in fall semester 2002 compared to fall semester 2001. 
  • "it is part of my job to meet with students after they have experience alcohol poisoning and required medical attention, and I have done so for the past 7 years. As part of this conversation, I talk with the student about happened the night they drank too much to make sure that that does not happen again. Without a question, in easily over 90% of these cases, hard alcohol (distilled alcohol) was involved."

It went beyond anecdotes:
From the Los Angeles Times (9/3/2000):  Based on a survey of 2,500 students at 100+ US universities:

“Forget banning keg parties, the students say.  Beer isn’t the problem.  It’s hard liquor, particularly shots and shooters, that gets used exclusively to get drunk fast--and often poses the greatest dangers. . . .  If it were up to students to suggest one thing to protect their classmates from the dangers of unsafe drinking, a large majority--67% to 27%--say they would ban hard liquor.”


The Student Life, 2002 article, “Trustees form alcohol advisory committee”, sparked by the near death of a student the previous year
  • 'I told the trustees that if I could ban hard alcohol from campus, I would,' Quinley said. 'I don't think I can, though.'
Distilled Alcohol (Spirits) & Aggression
Gustafson, R. (1999). Male alcohol-related aggression as a function of type of drink. Aggressive Behavior, 25, 401-408. 
 In his study of 90 young adult men, “[s]pirits elicited more direct physical aggression than either beer or wine” despite comparable BAC levels for three groups of drinkers--beer drinkers, wine drinkers, and liquor drinkers.

Conclusion:  “[T]he present experimental data together with data from previously published studies strongly suggest that the so-called alcohol-aggression link is restricted to spirits.”

Today, Stanford, Dartmouth and others have banned hard alcohol. There is some evidence, mostly anecdotal, that this can be effective. And still, there are skeptics who believe students will drink what they want, when they want, and where they want. Our ban is specific to the dorms as we have no fraternity houses. Our ban was not created specifically to address sexual assault, thought that is obviously one of the harmful behaviors we hope to reduce, along with alcohol poisonings and drinking and driving. And while our hospitalizations and forays to detox seem to be up, it is more likely related to students feeling comfortable asking for help because they know they won't get in trouble.

Does the ban deter students from having hard alcohol in their rooms? Probably not. Might permitting hard alcohol in the dorms increase drinking-related problems? Probably. It would change the nature of room parties. We would probably not change this rule just because students say they won't follow it. If we did that we would probably have to allow marijuana on campus or permit plagiarism.

Trinity University continues to be progressive in how it addresses alcohol consumption. Despite the cost of higher education, some residential students will still make drinking to get drunk a part of their experience. We know we can't stop it. But maybe we can slow it down.

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