The University Record, March 25, 2002

Alcohol misuse is again the leading public health problem

By Joel Seguine
Office of the Vice President for Communications
and Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

Alcohol misuse remains the number one public health problem at the U-M and for institutions of higher education across the U.S., according to results of two important studies released this week. “Alcohol use and its adverse consequences pose the most serious threat to the intellectual, psychological and physical development of traditional-age undergraduates. We take this threat to our students very seriously,” said Carol Boyd, director of the U-M Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC), and professor of nursing and women’s studies.

The U-M findings come from the latest Student Life Survey, conducted in March 2001 by UMSARC in collaboration with the research firm, MSInteractive. The internet-based study, funded by the University, used random samples of undergraduate students, and included a survey questionnaire asking about student life including questions about attitudes, behaviors and perceptions regarding alcohol and other drugs. A similar study was conducted at U-M in 1999.

The national findings come from the College Alcohol Study conducted bi-annually by Harvard University’s School of Public Health, using random samples of undergraduate students nationally at 119 colleges and universities. More than 10,000 undergraduate students participated in the 2001 Harvard study.

According to the 2001 U-M Student Life Survey, 86 percent of undergraduate students attending U-M reported that alcohol use represents a problem on campus. “Not surprisingly, alcohol was the most often-used drug among the students,” said Sean Esteban McCabe, UMSARC researcher. The U-M survey findings mirror national results showing that alcohol and other drug use among college students increases the probability of negative consequences, both to the drinker and those affected by the drinker’s behavior. “Specifically, college students who engage in higher rates of alcohol misuse and other drug use have been shown to experience significantly higher rates of motor vehicle fatalities, unsafe sex, emergency care visits and poor academic performance,” McCabe said.

“The health and welfare of our students is my highest priority,” said Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, “and these Student Life Survey results reveal that we still have a lot of educating to do about high risk drinking. Over the past several years we’ve initiated and reenergized programs designed to help our students make good decisions. I’m excited that Patrice Flax, our recently hired coordinator for alcohol and other drugs prevention and education, has hit the ground running to ensure that our messages are consistent and effective across campus.”

According to Boyd, the 2001 U-M Student Life Survey represents one of the largest known single institutional random samples of undergraduate students (3,606) to have been studied. The random samples of undergraduates living in University residence halls (1,536), also represents one the largest known of its kind from a single institution.

The Student Life Survey enables U-M to evaluate several of its prevention and intervention efforts. For instance, one of the more recent programmatic interventions nationally and at the University is the addition of the substance-free room option for students. The 2001 study found that in addition to less drinking, there were fewer behavior problems associated with alcohol and other drugs among students residing in substance-free residence hall rooms, such as getting hurt or injured as a result of drinking. And there were fewer secondary consequences associated with the drinking of others, such as sleep disturbances and vandalism.

The 2001 U-M Student Life Survey and Harvard study findings

The rate of heavy episodic drinking among U-M undergraduate students was 50 percent. This compares to 44 percent nationally, according to the Harvard 2001 study. Harvard’s study showed heavy episodic drinking holding steady, as 1999 research also found a 44 percent rate; in 1999, U-M’s survey showed 45 percent. (Heavy episodic drinking was defined in the 2001 Student Life Survey as having five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks for women in the past two weeks.)

There was a notable increase in heavy drinking among U-M undergraduate women in 2001 with 51 percent engaging in heavy episodic drinking relative to 42 percent in 1999. National findings also showed an increase, with Harvard’s study showing about 41 percent of women heavy episodic drinking in 2001, up from about 40 percent in 1999. Harvard found heavy episodic drinking more common on all women’s campuses, as well—between 1993 and 2001, percentages of heavy episodic drinkers at all-female schools rose from 24 to 32 percent. Nationally, the rate of heavy episodic drinking was 41 percent among undergraduate women and 49 percent among undergraduate men, while at U-M, the breakdown is 51 percent of women and 48 percent of men.

Besides alcohol, other drugs used most often by U-M undergraduates were nicotine, marijuana and ecstasy. In particular, there was a significant increase in annual ecstasy use among U-M students from 4 percent in 1999 to 7 percent in 2001. This increase is consistent with national trends of undergraduates, according to national studies. For example, U-M’s Monitoring the Future study found that annual ecstasy use among college students nationally rose from 2.4 percent in 1997 to 9.1 percent in 2000.

Seventy-six percent of undergraduate students residing in social fraternities and sororities reported heavy episodic drinking in a two-week period at U-M, very close to the 75 percent rate reported by Harvard.

Among negative consequences at U-M, 18 percent of undergraduate students reported drunk driving, 23 percent reported riding with a drunk driver, 27 percent of undergraduate students reported experiencing an unwanted sexual advance by someone drunk or high in the past year (34 percent women and 16 percent men), 47 percent had to take care of someone drunk in the past year and 41 percent of our students found vomit in the past year.

A number of initiatives are in place to address the concerns about student alcohol and drug use. They include:

1. Campus Coordination

A staff member was hired in Sept. 2001 to fill the new position of Alcohol and Other Drug Campus Initiatives Coordinator. Priorities and goals have been established, as well as a preliminary comprehensive campus prevention plan. Initiatives include outreach to selected target populations, a project Web site and a mini-grant program for late-night, alcohol-free programming.

2. Student Initiatives

Targeted student prevention efforts will be under way in the fall of 2002. Students living in the residence halls with the highest substance use will be involved in new programming and activities. Programmatic efforts also will be developed for new pledges in the Greek community and for Korean students.

3. Assessment and Intervention

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers free and confidential brief therapy services for all enrolled students in individual and group settings. As part of the intake, all students are screened for alcohol problems and counselors are trained to discuss alcohol use if the need is indicated.

4. Information Dissemination

The messages of prevention will involve media campaigns, trainings and presentations upon request, and various printed materials primarily distributed to all first-year students and their parents and to residential staff.

5. Substance Free Housing

University Housing offers substance-free housing in each residence hall. Out of 9,400 total residence hall spaces, 2,600 are designated substance-free, representing 25 percent of the total residence hall population.

6. Policies

Drinking laws are enforced on campus and violators are referred for various counseling, assessment, education and community service programs. In addition, the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities states that “illegally possessing, using, distributing, manufacturing or selling alcohol or other drugs” are violations. Repeated offenses may lead to suspension or expulsion.

7. Parental Involvement

Students and parents are always welcome to serve on University committees that address alcohol and other drug issues. In addition, parents are involved through parent orientation and Campus Day visits. Articles and brochures to parents continue to address alcohol issues.