Detox at Madison

U. of Wisconsin worries about sharp increase this year in those needing emergency treatment for alcohol.
October 21, 2005

When the Princeton Review in August named the University of Wisconsin at Madison as its top "party school" for the year, Wisconsin officials objected and boasted about their progress in curbing excessive drinking.

This week, Wisconsin officials are telling a different story -- not only reiterating that they make more alcohol-related arrests than just about anyone else (a function in large part of Madison's large enrollment), but also that more Madison students require emergency detox treatment than at other universities (a ranking university officials said isn't scientific, but based on comparisons with other large universities).

The reason Madison officials are sharing the detox stats is that they are way up this fall. At a news conference Wednesday, officials said that 30 students have required emergency detox so far this academic year, compared to 17 last year. The comparison is more striking because the university has had only four home football games so far this year (compared to five at this time last year), and home football games correlate with excessive drinking incidents.

To further drive home the point, Madison released summaries of the conditions of students who required detox, with details such as:

  • "Found lying on the ground unaware of location date, date or time. Urinated on self."
  • "Unaware of location, unable to stand w/o assistance. Claimed her father was NYPD /w/ mafia ties. Removed handcuffs and seatbelt in squad on way to detox."
  • "Found passed out in room, vomited, in and out of consciousness...."

John Lucas, a spokesman for Madison, said that university officials were worried about the levels of "extreme intoxication" and felt that they needed to try something more to get the attention of students. "We've done just about everything we can think of as a university," he said, "but there's not always a lot of buy-in by either students or the city."

Lucas said that, given the number of students requiring detox treatment, Madison has been "incredibly lucky" not to have had any student deaths related to alcohol this year. He added that these figures only cover campus police actions, and exclude actions by local police, who took an unknown number of additional students to detox.

Madison's publicity of its detox numbers is striking in part because the university has been holding itself up as a leader in changing campus culture on alcohol. In addition to the statements after the Princeton Review designation, the university has won numerous large grants from foundations and others to carry out various programs and also taken steps to involve parents more when their children have drinking problems.

Reactions to the announcement has been mixed. Samantha Zieser, campus relations chair of the Associated Students of Madison, said that she thinks enforcement of alcohol rules is up, but that actual drinking is about the same. Zieser, who is 20, said that alcohol is easy to obtain for underage students like herself, but that most students aren't at risk of their health or lives.

"I don't think extreme drinking is as widespread as it may seem by those figures," she said. "Students don't always know their tolerance level, and they just overindulge."

Still, Zieser said she thought it was good for Madison to release the information. "It will deter students from overindulging to the point of detox."

But Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center, said that what Madison did just shows that "scare tactics don't work." He said that Madison has been focused on trying to shake up students, rather than using the "social norms" approach in which students are told that most students drink in moderation.

He called the approach of releasing data on detox "health terrorism" and said it can have the opposite of the intended effect. "There's never been any research to show that this has a positive impact."

Haines said that university officials are of course correct to take seriously the question of how many students need detox, and to analyze whether those numbers are on the rise. But he said that publicizing this information may just result in more people being sent to detox when they don't need it, and scaring those who work in dormitories into calling in authorities when that may not be necessary.

"Sometimes a person who has passed out and urinated on himself may only need cleaning up," Haines said.


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