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Guest: To curb drinking problem, look to research and parental involvement

BY PETER NATHAN - GUEST OPINION | DECEMBER 15, 2009 7:30 AM

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The Dec. 7 Daily Iowan article “The siren song of alcohol” brought home with great immediacy the terrible consequences of high-risk drinking at the UI. Admittedly, a good deal of what was written is familiar: Iowa’s dubious standing as one of the nation’s leaders in abusive drinking, the high rates of student self-reports of adverse consequences of this drinking, the growing numbers of arrests for alcohol-related events in Iowa City, and the proliferation of bars in the city. But interwoven with these familiar observations were the graphic, eyewitness reports chronicling the suffering of UI lethal drinkers because of their drinking. That was new on the pages of the DI.

Most of us assume that students who drink a lot get sick, act irresponsibly, drink and drive, and suffer the indignities of arrest for public intoxication or underage drinking. But these drinking consequences are abstract and depersonalized until we are brought face to face with the realities.

It’s hard to read about the college-age man crumpled and abandoned on the curb outside One-Eyed Jakes, his body immobilized by alcohol. Or the Code 3 young woman, disoriented and covered with blood, unsure of where she is. Or the bloodied student outside Summit Bar and Restaurant, punched by someone he didn’t know.

It’s hard to read about these students and even harder to put ourselves in their places. Yet these are common consequences of overconsumption by underage students at the UI, as the author of this article saw them. In the face of his narrative power, telling the story as he saw it, it’s hard to deny that high-risk drinking takes a huge toll on UI students.

What approaches to the problem of abusive drinking have been tested? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has compiled a list of programs that “have proven effectiveness.” Most focus on students who come to the university already at high risk for abusive drinking. They are designed to heighten motivation to change drinking, to change expectancies of the effects of abusive drinking, to use cognitive behavioral skills training to get drinking under better control, and to develop an overall plan to reduce the use of alcohol. Because so many UI undergraduates come to the university already experienced high-risk drinkers, this group is very large at the UI. One of these programs, BASIS, has been tested at the UI.

The national alcohol institute also endorses environmental-change strategies as a means for reducing alcohol-related problems in the general population. Not yet tested in college students but promising nonetheless, these strategies include increased enforcement of the minimum drinking-age laws, enforcement of other laws to reduce alcohol-impaired driving, restrictions on the density of alcohol outlets, increased prices on alcoholic beverages, and more responsible beverage-server policies. While some of these environmental change strategies have been tried in Iowa City, a more rigorous and consistent effort to change the drinking environment here may be worth the effort.

Finally, another strategy for dealing with the overconsumption problem at the UI could well include a solicitation for greater involvement of parents in their students’ drinking, especially during the students’ first year at the university. Research done at universities elsewhere suggests that increased parental involvement in their students’ decisions about drinking may help moderate abusive drinking.

Peter Nathan is a former UI provost, a professor emeritus of community and behavioral health, and a nationally known expert on alcoholism.


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