- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

The risk of underage drinking doesn’t disappear once teens go off to college. In fact, the risk increases, says Henry Wechsler, author of “Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses.”

“More than half of freshmen arrive at college and will have an opportunity to binge drink within a week,” says Mr. Wechsler, whose 2002 book is based on surveys of 50,000 students at 140 campuses.

Binge drinking — defined as men drinking more than five drinks and women drinking more than four drinks in one sitting within the past two weeks — is the cause of at least 1,400 college student deaths a year, he says.

The risk increases when teenagers get to college because the environment often is conducive to drinking, he says. There are, for example, many outlets — stores and bars — that sell liquor around campus.

“At one college, we found 185 outlets within two miles of campus,” says Mr. Wechsler, director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s College Alcohol Studies program.

Colleges offer various programs to deal with underage and binge drinking, including counseling services and peer-education programs.

“We try to be there in front of the students at the most vulnerable times,” says Patricia Mielke, assistant vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park. “For example, we send out a 21st birthday card just before the student turns 21 with all kinds of messages about what they can do not to jeopardize their health,” she says.

A card is also sent to the parents to remind them to stay engaged in their child’s life, particularly around the child’s 21st birthday, when some students drink excessively to celebrate reaching legal drinking age, Ms. Mielke says.

Another time when students are especially susceptible to binge drinking are the first several weeks on campus, when they are on their own for the first time and making new friends, she says.

Entering a sorority or fraternity also presents a vulnerable time, she says.

Mr. Wechsler says it’s not enough to address each student. He says he would like to see more pressure on alcohol manufacturers, liquor stores and other alcohol providers.

“Colleges should work with the community. Just cracking down on risky behavior on campus is not going to do it. It might just displace the drinking to the community,” he says. “You need to work with the bars and the liquor stores and crack down on them if they’re selling to minors.”

He also advocates that colleges crack down on the alcohol industry, which he says spends billions of dollars in advertising to gain access to college students.

Even this is not enough to prevent underage and binge drinking, Ms. Mielke says.

“Parents need to stay involved,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of parenting. Just because your child is 18 doesn’t mean they’ve become a responsible adult,” she says. “Parents need to talk continuously about alcohol use and abuse. The more they talk, the more likely they are to make a difference.”

Many universities, including the University of Maryland, have parent and family affairs offices to facilitate parental involvement.

“The relationship with the parents is crucial,” Mr. Wechsler says. “We should remember that even though the peer group becomes more important in later adolescent years, a strong relationship with a caring adult is really important.”

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