Campuses can help cancel 'Drinking 101'

August 21, 1998|By Mary Sue Coleman

ABERCROMBIE and Fitch's glorification of binge drinking in its back-to-school catalog is indefensible. Under pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the company acknowledged its "mistake" in including "Drinking 101" in a "fun, lighthearted" portrayal of campus life. But with thousands of copies in the hands of underage students, this gesture toward damage control is too little, too late.

Abercrombie & Fitch's marketing strategy betrays astounding ignorance of high-risk drinking on campuses today, where it is not uncommon for students to drink as many as four or five drinks an hour for the sole purpose of getting drunk quickly.

The results can be deadly. Three years ago, Matthew Garafalo, 19, a first-year student at the University of Iowa, died in his fraternity house after consuming a large quantity of alcohol, and in the past year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has documented at least 18 alcohol-related student deaths across the country.

But fatalities hardly begin to measure the societal costs of excessive drinking in this age group. Binge drinkers fall behind in their schoolwork, have unplanned and unprotected sex, become involved in accidents and get in trouble with the law. They interrupt other students' studies and their sleep; they damage property, pick fights and commit sexual offenses. As Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health has noted, "It is no longer possible to view bingeing as solely the bingers' problem; non-bingeing students are paying too steep a price." The American Medical Association has identified the problem as a public health issue.

Out-of-control drinkers are personally accountable for their behavior. But since the whole college community is also affected, we have a right -- even a duty -- to take collective action. Here are some suggestions:

Enlist the support of student leaders. Following Matthew Garafalo's death, leaders of Greek-letter organizations at Iowa took a hard look at the culture that encourages heavy drinking, and they have decided to make alcohol policy for all fraternity houses more restrictive, beginning this fall.

Enforce underage drinking laws and nuisance party and/or keg registration ordinances.

Establish alcohol-free floors or residence halls.

Sponsor more alcohol-free events. At Iowa, we offer free movies, concerts and outdoor activities during the first weeks of school, before the barhopping habit gets established. And we're keeping our student union open late at night, which is when young people want to be out.

Reclaim Fridays and Mondays. Encourage faculty members to maintain expectations for end-of-week assignments.

Correct misperceptions about drinking. Surveys show that college students believe that binge drinking is even more widespread than it really is. Advertisements highlighting the facts -- 44 percent binge drink, but 56 percent don't -- can help students resist peer pressure.

Ask bar owners to help. Offers of "all you can drink," two drinks for the price of one, or low-priced pitchers are invitations to high risk drinking. At the State University of New York in Albany, campus and community organizers persuaded bars to voluntarily stop these promotions. Lower the blood alcohol content (BAC) required for drunk-driving convictions. A driver with 0.08 BAC is 11 times more likely to crash than a driver who has not been drinking. Universities and communities are struggling to change the drinking culture and help students make responsible choices, and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving are powerful allies.

But we need more help, particularly from youth-oriented retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which has just opened a store in our community.

Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Iowa and co-author of "Be Vocal, Be Visible, Be Visionary: Recommendations for College and University Presidents on Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention."

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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