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Curbing binge drinking [Commentary]

Excessive drinking among college students is a public health problem that is larger than just the colleges and universities. It is a problem for our entire state. The more than 270,000 students attending college in Maryland comprise a large and critical segment of our future workforce. This is why I was proud to work with the leadership and staff of the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems this legislative session to ban the sale of extreme-strength "grain" alcohol.

College students and administrators from across the state urged the legislature to take this product off of Maryland's shelves, and as of July 1, we did, joining at least a dozen other states that have banned the sale of extreme strength alcohol, including our neighbors: Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

This is a product that, when mixed with other beverages, is odorless, tasteless, colorless and strong — more than twice as strong as most of the liquor on the market. It is also extremely cheap. At $36 for a 1.75 liter bottle, it costs about 36 cents per standard drink. We know that most of the alcohol young people drink is consumed when they are trying to get intoxicated. National survey research confirms the attractiveness of this product to heavy-drinking students: Underage students who binge drink are 36.5 times more likely to drink extreme-strength alcohol than underage non-binge drinkers.

Every year, 1,800 college students — about five per day — die in the United States from alcohol-related causes. Hundreds of thousands more suffer serious injuries and physical and sexual assaults because of excessive alcohol use. While Maryland's college drinking rates are near the national average, we can do better than that.

A decade ago, the Institute of Medicine told Congress the most effective approach to underage drinking was to make its reduction "a collective responsibility." This is exactly what the Maryland collaborative is doing in our state. Following the research-based recommendations of bodies like the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, the collaborative is taking a multi-level, multi-component approach to college drinking.

From improving screening, intervention and follow-up with individual students, to addressing the social and commercial supply of alcohol to underage students, to looking at what are the most effective ways to deter and reduce drunk driving and false ID use, the collaborative is showing what can happen when campuses come together in partnership with surrounding communities and commit to pursuing evidence-based strategies in a comprehensive approach to the problem.

The collaborative's leadership in removing one of the most dangerous alcohol products from the market shows its potential to improve the health, safety and success of Maryland college students. Before the collaborative's effort, legislation to ban grain alcohol was introduced twice in the Maryland legislature without success. Reducing college drinking will take more effort than banning one type of product, but this was a crucial step in a larger, comprehensive approach. Parents, community members, law enforcement, landlords, responsible liquor licensees, employers, and, of course, students themselves all have important roles to play in addressing excessive college drinking and related problems, including noise and nuisance, vandalism, assaults, drunk driving, injuries and deaths.

From decades of scientific research studies, we know that excessive drinking among college students has multiple causes and contributing factors. Too often students come to college with high-risk drinking patterns already in place. Research evidence is strong and compelling that students are less likely to engage in high-risk drinking in college when their parents have set clear expectations in high school, such as establishing zero tolerance for underage drinking.

Beyond parents, community characteristics play an important role. A glut of alcohol outlets surrounding a campus can undermine on-campus efforts at alcohol education, counseling, intervention and treatment, as can easy access to alcohol for underage persons, lax enforcement, and marketing practices and promotions that encourage heavy drinking. The research base dictates that addressing these has to be part of the mix in reducing excessive drinking on college campuses.

Our state's colleges and universities seek to help every student maximize his or her individual potential, and Maryland's higher education system is one of our greatest achievements as a state. Our investment in the youth of today helps to foster and encourage the great minds of tomorrow. The leadership that the Maryland collaborative is taking in adopting a comprehensive public health approach to college drinking is truly a public service, and it deserves all of our support.

Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Democrat, is a Maryland senator for District 18 in Montgomery County. His email is richard.madaleno@senate.state.md.us.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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