Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I'll Drink to That

Binge and problem drinking by college (and high school) students.

When I was serving on the local school board, and writing a column about K-12 issues every two weeks, it was necessary to do a lot of research, since many of the issues were new to me.

I guess I already knew it, but that experience really impressed upon me the very dramatic -- orders of magnitude -- improvement in research ability made possible by the Internet.

Indeed, as I sometimes put it, "With 15,000 school districts in this country, there is likely no problem/challenge confronting any one of them that has not been formerly experienced, identified, confronted, researched, resolved, written up, and posted to the Internet by at least one other school district somewhere." (If you add the experiences of K-12 systems in the other 180 countries of the world -- which you should -- the proposition is even more true.)

The same can, of course, be said of the challenges confronting colleges and universities -- such as the binge drinking by UI undergraduates that places Iowa near the top of drinking universities.

The problem, as I sometimes also said, were the members of task forces, committees -- and even school boards -- who "can't write and won't read." I occasionally fall into that category myself. I say I'm "too busy" (which may be "too lazy") to do any research, or I may feel I know most of the answers already, or that -- without first checking -- I simply assume that no one could possibly have addressed this challenge before and so there's no point in even bothering to look for the answers that others may have found.

I was reminded of this experience this morning in reading the reports of Iowa City's latest effort to "do something" about UI students' binge drinking, and the consequences of that behavior. See, e.g., Zack Kucharski,"I.C. Panel Addresses UI Drinking," The Gazette, "Iowa Today" Section, October 10, 2006, p. B1. (There was also coverage in the Press-Citizen and Daily Iowan -- including an editorial in the Daily Iowan.)

The panel to which the headline refers is made up of a distinguished, representative group of Iowa City leaders. So I would certainly like to believe that either they, individually -- or by way of instructions to their staff members if they had any -- did a thorough job of Internet searching. Because there are tons of material out there: research, data, best practices, "what works" in reducing college (and high school students') alcohol abuse.

It's just that our panel's recommendations (as reported in the press, my only source) didn't appear to reflect that quantity of research.

Finding ideas regarding what can be done to alleviate college students' excessive drinking is not a tough research job. Put both "alcohol" and "college" into Google, for instance, and you get 29,700,000 hits in 3/10ths of one second. Needless to say, I have not looked at all those sources. After all, I was not a member of the panel, and I certainly didn't have the assignment of coming up with its recommendations.

But the one at the top of that list, "College Drinking," is not a bad place to start. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health seemed to me an especially rich repository of information, research data, and best practices. And if that's not enough, as noted, there are another 29,000,000 to explore.

The point is, there is no shortage of ideas.

I've been writing on this subject for a decade. During that time numerous groups have been formed and disbanned, millions in grants have been spent for little or no purpose, and menwhile the problem gets worse every year.

No, a shortage of ideas has never been Iowa City's problem.

The problem has been our lack of will. The problem has been the political power we have been willing to cede to the owners of the 42 bars within walking distance of campus, owners who are getting rich off of doing everything they can to promote, advertise and otherwise encourage student excessive drinking -- legal when possible, underage when they won't get caught.

The fact is we don't want to do anything about binge drinking. And until we do, offering "recommendations" for its reduction is simply a waste of everyone's time.

If the time ever comes when we do want to do something the ideas are out there, on the Internet, at your fingertips -- in less than a second.

[If you're interested in this topic you'll also want to check out State29, "Excessive Drinking Problems At The University of Iowa," October 9, 2006. State 29 suggests, for example, lowering the drinking age to 18. It's also worth thinking about having kids drink more and younger -- namely, with their parents, very minor, watered down wine, say, so that alcohol is associated in their minds with responsible family, rather than rebellious peer, behavior. Anything would be better than letting underage students into bars -- institutions for the sale and consumption of alcohol -- and leaving it to the bar owners to see to it that none of them ever purchase or drink. It shouldn't have taken our panel a year to come up with the no-brainer proposal that the law be enforced (limiting entry to those over 21)!]
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3 comments:

alex.lavidge@gmail.com said...

If someone asked me what needs to be done I'd suggest putting together a community task force to map out a huge Venn diagram that illustrates all the reasons why young adults drink excessively while in college. All ages would be encouraged to attend.

I'm sure the reasons cited would include but wouldn't be limited to: stress, anxiety, boredom, lacking strong sense of self, need for control, desire for social status (since only the financially affluent can afford to drink excessively therefore wasting both time and money and kids like that having that image), habit, cultural norms, addiction, tradition/indoctrination into social circles, a need for intimacy due to a void of authentic self-expression. The list goes on. Ask any person to put their pride aside and they'll tell you why they drink excessively and what the root of the problem is.

Next, compare these factors, which would surely overlap with each other on this Venn diagram, with two questions: 1) what can we specifically define as a factor as being highly correlated with binge drinking and 2) how much would it cost to focus on just reducing its influence on just that one factor based on case studies.

Repeat steps 1 and 2 until a measurable difference is observed.

It's amazing how this dialogue has been going on in Iowa City for years and the answers are right there in front of us. I think what it takes now is just strong leadership from someone with a background in the sciences and humanities who understands the social issue holistically.

Nick said...

Alex: Right on, as always. But while this essential analysis is going on we might also want to limit entry to bars to those over 21 (or lower the drinking age to 18). Otherwise, letting people who are legally forbidden to consume alcohol into an establishment the sole purpose of which is to sell it, is an administrative nightmare. It's like Mason Williams' line: "Here's a ball; don't bounce it." -- Dad

Alex Lavidge said...

In 1984 when the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed, the founder of Mother Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Candy Lightner, was known to be one of the strongest advocates for a minimum drinking age. At the time, it was thought that increasing the drinking age would help lower the number of alcohol related car accidents. Because this is such an emotionally sensitive issue for so many people, all of whom were desperate to support anything they felt could help them reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths, the logic was easy to follow.

(But whether it can be proven that it was a salient factor in curbing the number of people both driving under the influence and number of drunk driving deaths is still debatable.)

What's also interesting to discuss (and it would take more than a blog entry to do it) is the history of how the Federal Goverment managed to coerce all 50 states to implement this policy on the grounds that if they didn't adopt the change they'd get their federal highway funding taken away. Some would argue that this quid pro quo way of politics is dangerous. Others argue it is even unconstitutional because the Fed isn't given the power to regulate the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. But in any case the issue was leveraged for certain politicans to gain popular support.

Before then, a lot of states had a lower drinking age set at 18. A lot of that is due to the early 70s in the US, students really felt strongly that if they could die serving their country at 18 overseas, they should be mature enough to drink. Otherwise it was age discrimination. And that is a good point. Consistency isn't a bad thing. And like the safety issue it's something that's emotionally potent enough to inspire others to take action.

Which leads me to address your point that given the history, lowering the drinking age to 18 probably makes the most sense.

in the meantime I'm still just looking forward to the day when we're going to have a meaningful dialogue in the public sphere and holistic analysis about the causes of binge drinking. Rerum cognoscere causas. That would be nice.