One State's Findings on Imbibing

November 3, 2006

The charm may have gone out of smoking, but a survey released Thursday suggests that students in Minnesota remain a hard drinking crowd. The study’s author said the results show that tobacco reduction programs can be effective, but that campus health officials have to think up creative solutions to lessen binge drinking.

“We’ve tried to reduce the binge drinking rate with no success,” said the study's author, Ed Ehlinger, director of Boynton Health Service, which serves students and others at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

The study explored alcohol and tobacco use among 7,638 undergraduates at 12 Minnesota colleges and universities during the spring of 2006. Most of the colleges showed significant drops in current and daily tobacco use by students from the previous survey in 2005. Current use was defined as smoking within the last 30 days. From 1998 to 2006, daily tobacco use among students at the University of Minnesota dropped from 9.8 percent to 4.6 percent, and current use fell from 41.8 percent to 26.4 percent.

Ehlinger said that students at University of Minnesota probably have slightly lower rates of smoking than do other students in the state because Minneapolis recently put in place a public smoking ban.

But he acknowledged that the colleges have had far more trouble lowering the rates of high risk drinking, defined by the consumption of five or more drinks in one sitting. Almost 48 percent of males reported having engaged in high risk drinking within the previous two week period, as did almost 40 percent of females.

Policies have failed to lower heavy drinking, which Ehlinger called an “intractable problem” at campuses in Minnesota, which he attributed -- though he admitted it was speculation -- to the “drinking culture” that he said is pervasive in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota. “They are the highest drinking states in the union,” he said.

Ehlinger said campuses like his "need a different approach,” and that officials at his university are exploring different tools to lower drinking by attacking issues related to alcohol consumption. Strategies they have considered include working to enforce driving and drinking laws, reducing sexual assaults, and educating students to call 911 when a drinker passes out.

Experts on student drinkning elsewhere took issue with some of the Minnesota researchers' conclusions. “I think it is a mistake to say that the problem of heavy, episodic drinking is ‘intractable,’ ” said William DeJong, a professor at Boston University and director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. “The key is to address the environmental factors, both on campus and in the community, that drive alcohol consumption.”

This inability to diminish heavy drinking stands in contrast to work at other institutions, such as the Washington State University. “From the early 1990s to the present, our heavy episodic drinking has declined substantially -- fewer students are drinking in a risky manner, and more students are choosing not to drink,” said John Williams, associate director at Washington State’s Health and Wellness Center.

Ralph Hingson, an epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health who studies alcohol issues, said that the issues Minnesota officials are choosing to focus on now -- such as the link to sexual assaults and the risk to students who drive drunk -- "are good ones.” “These are things that are not only harmful to the people drinking, but to other people as well.”

Hingson said that research has found that, among college students aged 18 to 25, about one in five has a drinking problem. Once these students are identified, individual intervention has been found to be effective, but “most problem drinkers don’t think they have a problem” and never seek counseling.

“So the challenge is, how do we get large number of students screened and then get these students into counseling?” he said. “We have tools but they are not being applied.”

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