GUEST COLUMNIST | Alcohol can damage brains, wreck lives

By Rebecca Smith

Even though most college students are still under the legal drinking age of 21, drinking in college is often seen as a rite of passage. I am having trouble thinking of even one movie about the college experience that doesn’t portray drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol.
What’s even more alarming is the misunderstanding that college students have about how dangerous their drinking habits are. 
Every year, Texas A&M University conducts a survey of college students all over the state of Texas. 
According to the 2015 survey, 61 percent of college students report drinking in the last 30 days. That may not be surprising to many people. But what is surprising is the fact that while 54 percent categorized themselves as “light drinkers,” when given the definition of binge drinking (more than 5 drinks in a sitting for men, 4 for women), 41 percent of males and 35 percent of females reported that they had enough to qualify as binge drinking in the last 30 days. More than three out of four students currently binge drink.
Clearly there is some confusion about what a “light drinker” is.
Because the brain doesn’t finish developing until about age 24 on average, introducing any alcohol is going to affect brain development. But binge drinking is especially dangerous.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 1,825 college student deaths every year are alcohol-related. More than 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted every year by another student who has been drinking. About one in four college students report academic problems from drinking, and roughly 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.
Then there’s the issue of sexual assault, which colleges are desperately trying to come up with strategies to reduce. About 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. And experts believe that many, many cases go unreported.
According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,053 current and recent college students released last year, “Heavy drinking is one of the most significant predictors of sexual assault in college … Analysis of the results found that women who say they sometimes or often drink more than they should are twice as likely to be victims of completed, attempted or suspected sexual assaults as those who rarely or never drink. Several male victims also pointed to alcohol’s role in their assaults.”
There has been lots of research on the most effective ways to prevent college drinking; some of the most effective are restricting happy hours and price promotions, simply enforcing the legal drinking age, and increasing the alcohol sales tax (Remember, college students and teens are generally broke. Hitting their wallet will always be a deterrent). Colleges are already required to educate their students about the dangers of alcohol if they want government funding, but education alone isn’t enough.
College students are one of our country’s most precious commodities. Let’s make sure we protect them from the havoc that alcohol can wreak on their lives.

Rebecca Smith is a certified prevention specialist and coalition coordinator for the Northeast Texas Coalition Against Substance Abuse, a program of Next Step Community Solutions.

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