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Dartmouth's hard liquor ban won't address heavy drinking culture

Having recently heard about Dartmouth College’s initiative to address heavy drinking, I am pleased to see they are taking an aggressive approach. While heavy and binge drinking among college students has recently been documented as going down, this behavior still remains of great concern. Vulnerability for injury, harm, death, property damage, and so many other negative consequences remain – and these are all preventable. So the good news is two-fold: Binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a row at least once in the previous two weeks) is down to 35% of traditional age college students, reduced from levels around 40% for the past three decades. The second part that is good, I think, is Dartmouth’s willingness to experiment by taking the bold move to address heavy drinking, by banning hard liquor.

I believe colleges and universities should experiment with different approaches and monitor to see the effectiveness and efficacy of different experiments and approaches, however this one doesn't address it. And in the meantime, a hard liquor ban miscommunicates some key messages about alcohol and responsible decisions about its use and non-use. Having worked with college alcohol abuse prevention issues for forty years, I know it takes a comprehensive approach to address problems with alcohol abuse. This is a big, big challenge, and policy is necessary for a campus effort, but not sufficient.

The problem, I believe, is that a hard liquor ban is not going to address the heavy drinking culture. This is not a statement about this specific institution of higher education, but rather about the culture surrounding alcohol consumption and heavy drinking, wherever it occurs. This policy seems to suggest that a person cannot get drunk or impaired by consuming beer or wine – an unwise and inappropriate message. I think the college leaders, and college leaders everywhere, need to look beyond what people are drinking, and look more at the motivations for use and abuse, as well as the context of these behaviors.

Further, consumption of any of these products – beer, wine, and liquor – is illegal before age 21.  I’m not suggesting that the law, itself, is sufficient in curbing harmful behavior.  What I do think is that we need to engage in a different discussion. We should be talking with (not to) students about alcohol and healthy choices; we should engage them in discussing and setting guidelines for their decisions, with appropriate consequences. We should work with students to help set standards for individuals and groups (e.g., fraternity / sorority / athletic team). I think our behavioral consequences system should include a developmental type approach, based on the nature of the infraction; this will vary based on the nature of the behavior (some are minor, some are more serious, and some might suggest the beginnings of an alcohol use disorder on a continuum), so varied assessment and referral strategies should be incorporated. 

The bottom line is that we have begun to make some progress, yet we have a long way to go.  I applaud this one institution’s boldness, and hope others will also be bold. However, I believe strongly that we need to be teaching and modeling healthy life skills. This is a big job, and more faculty and staff and student leaders need training to accomplish this well. Yes, the life skills approach is much harder to implement - but our colleges are up to that challenge.   


Dr. David Anderson

Professor of Education and Human Development, George Mason University

Education Advisory Board Member, Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility

David Anderson, Ph.D. serves as a Professor and Director, Center for the Advancement of Public Health, School of Recreation, Health and Tourism, College of Education and Human Development, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He serves as project director and researcher on numerous national, state and local projects, teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on drug and alcohol issues, community health, and health communications. He’s also served as a member of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility’s Education Advisory Board 1994-2015.


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