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Binge Drinking on Campus: What should be done and who is responsible?

Binge drinking is common across university campuses and is responsible for up to 2,000 deaths a year.Drinking has often been seen as a “rite of passage” on many college and university campuses. Students are leaving the “structure” and comfort of their high school years, years spent at home where parents are still preparing the meals and cleaning the house – years where the “kids” are still being treated as “kids”. The movement away from home into an environment peopled by like-minded “kids” who are out to discover the world and believe that they are now “adults” encourages a mindset that feeds off of “hubris” and a sense of invulnerability. Classes are no longer constant from 8am to 4pm; they are sporadic and often can end late in the evenings. While some students may still live at home, they are rarely bound by any curfews – they are eighteen and argue that they are now “adults”. Many others will move out of the home for the first time and will live in residences or in university neighbourhoods. They are far away from parental supervision and are now entering a “new” social reality – a reality that often involves and encourages drinking.

Colleges and Universities offer students the chance to be exposed to what can be the most rewarding experiences of their lives. Knowledge and training that can lead to lucrative professional careers - philosophical, political, and social concepts that resonate and have a lasting impact on the expanding mind that usually accompanies the curiosity of the eighteen year old student – social interactions that often lead to the most lasting friendships and frequently to future spouses – a seemingly ideal environment for growth and development. So why has drinking become such an accepted aspect of this ambiance?

Excessive drinking is not only a common activity on campus; it has become an expected part of the university culture. “Free beer” parties are the norm. Beer companies sponsor frosh activities in September whereby the landscape of the university campus (and the city or town where the campus is located) is transformed into a drunken circus peopled by young men and women staggering through the streets in pathetic inebriated states from sunup to sunset. Freshman students are welcomed to the university with “study” kits (notebooks, agenda, pens etc.) that are packaged in simulated “six pack” cartons bearing the sponsoring beer company’s logo. Frat parties are launched every weekend and drinking “contests” are taken as seriously as a math exam.

What’s going on here? Admittedly students do live a stressful life; exam preparation, assignments, class attendance – there is much pressure and in the competitive job markets today, the pressure to “excel” is very high. Having a drink or two on the weekends with friends is an understandable means by which to unwind. But the “weekend” drinking is rarely “one or two drinks”. A culture of “binge” drinking has embraced (or been embraced by) university campuses. The thinking behind the “binge” mentality rests with the “student” situation: classes and much work during the weekdays – unwind on the weekend. But the unwinding within this “drinking” milieu encourages an intensity in the drinking that leads to massive consumption in short periods of time. This, in turn, leads to frequent “blackout” drinking and regrettable intoxicated behaviour. It fosters a “predatory” environment where drunken co-eds are susceptible to unscrupulous “advances” that can lead to rape and violence – it leads to peer pressure that suggests that those who do not participate in the “binge” could be ostracized and marginalized by their fellow classmates – it leads to alcohol poisoning etc… The risks and dangers of binge drinking are obvious (statistics from the USA indicate that there are over 2,000 deaths on college campuses directly related to binge drinking), yet it continues to remain a major issue.  Studies on the correlation of binge drinking and future alcoholism are ongoing and rehab centres such as Sobriety Home have incorporated programs that are specifically addressed to young educated individuals seeking recovery while still attending colleges and Universities.  They are proud sponsors of SMART Recovery Quebec, which hosts addiction support meetings on Monday nights close to Concordia’s Loyola Campus.

The students themselves are partly to blame; they are the ones consuming the alcohol and putting themselves at risk. But, again, they are still very young and susceptible to the “wonder” and “dangers” of their first exposure to “adult freedom”. While they should be allowed to make mistakes so as to learn from them, the mistakes involved with this kind of drinking can be catastrophic. At eighteen the sense of invulnerability is high and the “worldly” knowledge necessary to be cognizant of the dangers is low. But the University is THE place of knowledge. There are, presumably, numerous “adults” who have that “worldly” knowledge and they live and work at an institution that disseminates “knowledge”. Faculty, administrators, staff; the educated people that are the backbone of the university ARE cognizant of the dangers and yet, they are allowing these practices to be sustained. It is not to say that they are “encouraging” it, but are they doing anything to discourage this drinking culture?

Allowing the beer companies to so openly promote their product through the sponsorship of events that promote excessive drinking seems to be a bit incongruous with a mandate of “higher education”. The incentive to continue to allow the beer companies so much power seems to be money. The beer companies pay the universities for their “events” and advertising rights that leave the “vulnerable” students exposed to the promotion of drinking. No doubt, the administrators of the universities and colleges are aware of the impact that this kind of advertising has on their students, and are also aware of the growing problems associated with binge drinking. But they choose to allow it to continue, as the sad reality is that the University has the same concerns as all other “businesses”; money is a necessity.

It is perhaps idealistic to think that the institutes of higher learning should be exempt from this “capitalistic” reality, but the hard truth is that they are not. The issue of responsibility for the drinking problems on campuses is not simple. Ultimately, it is shared by all. But, as the problem persists, it would be understandable if the “adults” were, perhaps, held to be a bit more responsible; after all, they have the “wisdom” of experience and, one would think in the case of Universities, the obligation to put the health and welfare of their students as their primary concern. 

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