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UT Researcher Says College Students’ Predictable Drinking Habits Can Open Door To Prevention


HOUSTON— The predictability of college students’ drinking could open a door to prevention, Scott Walters, Ph.D., a researcher at The University of Texas School of Public Health, recently told members of the American Public Health Association (APHA) at the group’s 135th annual meeting.

Scott Walters, Ph.D.

Walters, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at the UT School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus, based his symposium presentation on a paper he co-authored that was published in the November 2007 issue of Addictive Behaviors.

Building on earlier studies that have shown college students tend to binge drink around specific events, the paper, “Event-specific prevention: Addressing college student drinking during known windows of risk,” reviewed existing literature about prevention efforts.

Critical events include the beginning of the school year, spring break, sporting events, homecoming, 21st birthday celebrations and graduation—the kind of events that Walters says are likely to be seen by students as a “time-out” from normal drinking.

Strategies include publicizing the signs of alcohol poisoning and providing an overview of campus and community alcohol policies during student orientation. The authors also encourage faculty to begin assignments and quizzes early in the semester and schedule classes on Fridays.

Homecoming strategies include making students aware of social host liability, encouraging designated drivers, issuing wristbands for those over 21 who wish to drink and segregating drinking and non-drinking areas to minimize the availability of alcohol to underage students.

“The vast majority of college drinking interventions are targeted to lower overall rates, but don’t address the episodic drinker,” Walters said. “We looked at all the interventions and made some practical recommendations around specific events.”

Walters said binge drinking places students at risk for carrying out or being the victim of physical or sexual assault. Alcohol also plays a role in risky sexual behavior including unprotected sex and sex with multiple partners.

Physical effects range from hangovers to death from alcohol poisoning. Alcohol can cause changes in the structure and function of the developing brain, a critical problem since the brain continues to develop into the mid-‘20s, he told APHA members in his presentation.

Of the 14,000 college students who die each year from alcohol-related causes, 5,000 of them are under the age of 21. Last March, Acting Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu, M.D., issued a national call to action on underage drinking.

Walters and his co-authors examined protective behavior use among heavy-drinking college students in another paper in the November 2007 issue of Addictive Behaviors.

The study, “Correlates of protective behavior utilization among heavy-drinking college students,” found that students who reported the heaviest drinking were less likely to use protective behaviors. Males and students with a perceived history of parental alcohol abuse were also less likely to use protective behaviors.

Women in the study reported their behaviors are “knowing where your drink has been at all times” and “going home with a friend.” For men, the two major strategies are, “knowing where your drink has been at all times” and “using a designated driver.”

The authors suggest marketing other strategies, such as alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, having a friend let a student know when they’ve had enough, setting a drinking limit and avoiding competitive drinking practices.

They also recommend programs that focus on identifying and intervening with students who have a family history of alcohol abuse.

“What this study suggests is that college students may be able to reduce their risk for problems, even without making changes in the amount they are drinking,” Walters said. “A lot of it is in how students are drinking.”


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