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Do College Drinking Bans Work?

Harvard Study Shows Effects of School Policies

CASA News Release

The nation's preeminent study of college drinking finds that 21 percent fewer students at colleges that ban alcohol are heavy episodic drinkers.

However, heavy alcohol use is high at both types of schools: 38 percent of students attending schools that ban alcohol are heavy episodic drinkers, compared to 48 percent of students at schools that do not ban alcohol. Students at ban colleges are more likely to abstain from alcohol completely. Three in ten students (29 percent) at ban schools abstain compared to only one in six students (16 percent) at non-ban colleges.

"Perhaps no college alcohol topic has generated as much speculation without the benefit of research as the banning of alcohol on college campuses," said Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and director of College Alcohol Study at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Some people say that students will drink just as much -- or even more -- if alcohol is banned. Others maintain that a campus alcohol ban would cut drinking rates drastically. We used our research data to examine commonly held assumptions."

The findings are based on a nationally representative sample of students attending U.S. colleges who completed questionnaires regarding alcohol use and related behaviors in the spring of 1999. College administrators provided information on their schools' alcohol policies, and whether alcohol was banned for all students, regardless of age.

Extreme Drinking

The study compared survey responses of 2,252 students at 19 ban schools with those of 9,051 students at 76 colleges that do not ban alcohol and assessed their respective levels of drinking and alcohol-related problems while controlling for student and school characteristics. Heavy episodic or "binge" drinking is considered five or more drinks in a row for a man, four or more for a woman. Students who drank in this way at least once in the two weeks prior to receiving the survey were considered heavy episodic drinkers. The study appears in the March 2001 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol(volume 62, number 2).

While there were fewer heavy episodic drinkers at colleges that ban alcohol, students who do drink engage in as much extreme drinking as drinkers at schools that do not ban alcohol. Student drinkers at schools that ban alcohol experience the same rate of alcohol-related problems as their peers at schools that do not ban alcohol. At both types of schools, about one in five students experienced five or more different problems related to their drinking.

"This shows that banning alcohol at college is not going to cure all campus problems related to alcohol," Wechsler said.

On the other hand, the study debunked some myths about the effects of banning alcohol. It found that students at ban colleges are no more likely to drink and drive or to use marijuana than students at colleges that permit alcohol. Students at ban schools are more likely to attend parties and events off campus but are not more likely to have more than five drinks in a row at those parties or events.

Fewer Secondhand Effects

"Banning alcohol is not associated with the side effects that some have feared," Wechsler said. "Students are not substituting alcohol for other drugs, and they're not more likely to drive drunk."

According to the study, schools that ban alcohol experience a much lower rate of the secondhand effects of binge drinking. Students are less likely to be insulted, injured, experience unwanted sexual advances, or be otherwise negatively affected by other students' drinking. "The higher quality of campus life for students residing on these campuses is a major advantage offered by ban schools," Wechsler said.

There was no significant difference between the two types of schools in the proportion of students who were heavy episodic drinkers while in high school. However, students who engaged in heavy episodic drinking in high school were less likely to do so at colleges that ban alcohol than at colleges that allow alcohol.

"These findings indicate that the differences in drinking between the two types of schools cannot be solely attributed to students drinking less who self-select colleges that ban alcohol," Wechsler said. "The differences strongly suggest that keeping alcohol off the campus may provide a protective effect for some students."

Easy Access to Alcohol

The study concludes that schools should look at these data and examine their own situations when deciding whether or not to ban alcohol. "While schools should not be afraid of banning alcohol, implementing such a policy would require the support of students and a community environment that would not counteract campus efforts because of the easy access to alcohol," Wechsler said. "Certainly, whatever decisions schools make should be based on a thorough review of their situation, and not simply on conjecture."

Joining Dr. Wechsler as authors of the article, "Alcohol Use and Problems at Colleges Banning Alcohol: Results of a National Survey," are Harvard School of Public Health colleagues Jae Eun Lee, Dr. P.H. and Toben F. Nelson, M.S., and Jeana Gledhill-Hoyt, M.P.H., who is currently a student at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

The full study and additional information on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study can be found here.

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