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Health, Science, Environment

Wash U adopts new approach to problem of binge drinking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2011 - Students visiting Washington University's health clinic this fall have been asked to complete forms to help school officials screen for alcohol misuse. It's one of two new approaches the university is taking to address binge drinking. The other involves a letter that Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton sent to the homes of incoming freshmen, urging parents to talk with their children about responsible alcohol use before sending them to college.

The university's efforts grew out of meetings with 31 other schools at sessions organized by Dartmouth College and the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. The upshot was the National College Health Improvement Project, nchip.org, an unusual initiative to discourage high-risk drinking.

Binge drinking is defined as men consuming five or more alcoholic drinks, and women four or more, in a two-hour time frame, according to Dartmouth's president, Jim Yong Kim, who is also a physician. In an article last month in the Washington Post, he said the rate of student alcohol abuse had remained unchanged for 30 years, adding that the data suggest "unfortunately that binge drinking is as widespread among today's freshmen as it was for their parents' generation and potentially just as lethal." He says an estimated 2,000 college students die yearly from alcohol-related causes, and that 600,000 are injured while under the influence of alcohol."

All approaches emerging from the consortium are evidence-based, says Dr. Alan Glass, an assistant vice chancellor and director of student health services at Washington University. He is pleased by student reaction to the drinking survey.

"Students might come in for a cold or sore throat, and as part of their visit they will be offered a questionnaire, which is a screening tool related to potential problems with alcohol. The practitioner certainly takes care of the student's primary medical issue. But if the student screens positive (for alcohol), we also have a very brief discussion with them about their alcohol use and our services" to help them with alcohol problems. Although filling out the questionnaire is optional, Glass says two-thirds of students agree to complete it.

"We've only begun to try it with a very small number of students (because) you try things out in small ways, look at the outcome, then you move forward based on that," Glass says. In the spring, the university will survey all students on alcohol abuse.

Families were equally receptive to Wrighton's letter about conversations with incoming freshmen about alcohol use, Glass says. The university surveyed students and found that "a large number" of parents had the conversation, he said. While noting that students must be 21 to drink in Missouri, Wrighton said in his letter that he was concerned about "life-altering consequences" of decisions a student might make when under the influence of alcohol.

Glass estimates that 38.5 percent of students could be affected by binge drinking at some point during college life. The goal is to reduce that percentage by a fourth over three years. Glass says the problem at Washington University was no more serious than it was at other major universities. Just as important as the numbers, he says, are the consequences of alcohol abuse.

"It's certainly a health issue. It potentially impacts academic performance. When you've been out drinking, you're hungover and the likelihood of performing to your maximum potential the next day in classes, on exams and in writing papers is certainly impacted."

In addition, he says alcohol abuse can also cause students to fall and hurt themselves, get into fights or engage in sexual assaults. "The vast majority of those assaults involve the use of alcohol," Glass says. "This is an issue on all college campuses."

He is convinced that the project will make a difference.

"I've been in college health for 15 years and I've never seen this large a group of schools come together focused on a single issue. The number of schools trying these things out, looking at data collectively and deciding what works ... is unique."

Although the program marks a national concerted push against alcohol abuse, Glass notes that Washington University had been focusing on the issue for a long time. So have other area universities.

Last week, the University of Missouri at St. Louis co-sponsored an event with Sigma Pi Fraternity, titled "Sam Spady." It sought to "educate the campus on the signs of binge drinking, blood-alcohol concentration, and the long-term consequences of drinking violations," says D'Andre Braddix, assistant dean of students at UMSL.

In addition Braddix says an Octoberfest program is in the works. It will offer material about the adverse effects of alcohol.

"By using free pretzels, root beer and T-shirts, we hope to get a large number of students to attend," Braddix says.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

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