Many practitioners and administrator may question the impact of policies to change students’ behavior towards alcohol; however, there is a body of research with supporting evidence that policies can make a difference when designed and delivered appropriately.
There are three broad levels of policy implementation: state, community, and institutional. Examples of state level laws include minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) law, high volume sales and consumption, such as happy-hour sales, keg registration, or pitcher sales. Examples of community-level policies include increased surveillance and enforcement by city police, server guidelines, and noise ordinances. Institutional policies include restricting alcohol to specific locations, registration of social events with alcohol, banning kegs, alcohol education programs, sanctions for student violators, and parental notification for underage students.
The following section summarizes the research on policies related to alcohol and is designed to answer the question, “Do policies work?”
Several studies have examined the effectiveness of state-level laws. For example, a study designed to examine the effects of zero tolerance laws (enforcing a 0.02 or lower BAC limit for underage drivers) on drinking patterns and on drinking and driving among college students revealed a 3-4% decrease in binge drinking and a 14-17% reduction in drinking and driving among drinkers after zero tolerance laws were implemented (Liang & Huang, 2008). Other studies have found that a comprehensive set of policies, defined as four or more alcohol control policies, at the state level to be associated with reduction in heavy episodic drinking and less driving after drinking (Nelson et al., 2005), (Wechsler et al., 2002).
A study at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell examined the impact of policies enforced at the community level, off-campus. The police jurisdiction was expanded to include off-campus housing in order to reduce alcohol-related problems occurring off-campus. In addition, the university police collaborated with the City of Lowell police to reduce drinking-related disturbances in the neighborhoods surround campus, through increased surveillance and enforcement. With both police forces working together, off-campus incidents involving student drinker decreased by 75% (University of Massachusetts-Lowell: Campus-Community Police Coalition, 2001).
Broad state level policies and supporting community level policies provide a good base, but institution administrators must also set expectations and send a strong message to students regarding institution-specific alcohol policies. A successful campus example comes from the University of Colorado at Boulder where administrators banned beer sales during football games. They examined the impact of the new policy by looking at game-day security incidents and season ticket holders’ and students’ attitudes towards the new policy. Comparing the first season of the ban to the previous year, significant decreases were found in nearly all incident categories including 50% reduction in ejections, arrests decreased by 45%, and student referrals fell by 89%. Low incidence rates persisted in the later seasons. Alumni were less positive about the ban the first year, yet their attitudes were more positive during the second year (Bormann & Stone, 2001).
A study examining the impact of a system-wide alcohol policy at Massachusetts public colleges and universities resulted in reductions in alcohol consumption. The new policies included: restricting alcohol to specific, observed locations, requiring advance registration of all social events involving alcohol, restricting possession of alcohol to residence halls for students over the age of 21, providing alcohol education programs, establishing procedures for enforcement of all federal, state, local and campus regulations, requiring colleges to work with neighboring cities and towns to enforce laws, implementing new sanction on student violators (“3-strikes” policy), and providing parental notification of all alcohol policy violations by underage students. When deans’ reported strict policy enforcement during the first year of policy implementation, it strongly correlated with declines in heavy episodic drinking two years later (Harris et al., 2010).
Issues and considerations
An education and publicity component must be considered part of the policy effort. Even if laws are in place, those who are targeted must be aware of the laws in order to comply. When new policies are created, it is important to involve students early in the decision making process. Once policies are created, they must be enforced consistently to be meaningful deterrents.
1. Bormann, C. A., & Stone, M. H. (2001). The effects of eliminating alcohol in a college stadium: The Folsom Field Beer Ban. Journal of American College Health, 50, 81−88.
2. Liang, L., & Huang, J. (2008). Go out or stay in? The effects of zero tolerance laws on alcohol use and drinking and driving patterns among college students. Health Economics, 17(11), 1261-1275.
3. Nelson, T., Naimi, T., Brewer, R., & Wechsler, H. (2005). The State Sets the Rate: The Relationship Among State-Specific College Binge Drinking, State Binge Drinking Rates, and Selected State Alcohol Control Policies. American Journal of Public Health, 95(3), 441-446.
4. Wechsler, H., Lee, J., Nelson, T., Kuo, M., & Lee, E. (2002). Underage College Students’ Drinking Behavior, Access to Alcohol, and the Influence of Deterrence Policies. Journal of American College Health, 50(5), 223-236.
5. University of Massachusetts-Lowell: Campus-Community Police Coalition (2001). The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.