Public health efforts to reduce the harm caused by risky alcohol consumption should be paying much more attention to university campuses, says public health policy consultant Margo Saunders.

Margo Saunders writes:

Buzz-phrases such as ‘changing the culture of drinking’, ‘changing the way we drink’, ‘moving towards a more responsible drinking culture’ are said to be the motivating ethos behind campaigns by government and nongovernment organisations to reduce alcohol-related harms.  Restrictions on promotions which involve cheap drinks and/or encouraging excessive consumption are framed within this context.

While attention is focused primarily on measures to curb excessive drinking at city-centre venues (or at least to curb the anti-social behaviour resulting from it), another set of alcohol venues seems to have escaped attention: university campuses.  For anyone marketing alcohol, there could be no better example of a ‘captive market’ than a residential campus full of 18-22 year olds all looking for a good time.

In case the consumption of alcohol on university campuses needs any support, alcohol industry marketing initiatives are there to help.  This month, Jim Beam on Campus (JBOC) is currently running Oktoberfest promotions which involve all-day drinking at cheap prices, over-sized steins, music, entertainment, and competitions which encourage students to consume large amounts as quickly as possible (‘boat races’, etc.), all under the friendly guidance of the Jim Beam Party Crew.  To complete the 1960s-fraternity-party mood, JBOC also promises the winner of their ‘win a party’ competition “…non-stop partaaaying, with nothing but tanned, toned co-eds for company.”

JBOC even encourages students to drink for a good cause, with fundraising events for breast cancer and prostate cancer charities.

It doesn’t take an honours degree to realise that these boozy events convey and constantly reinforce a culture of excessive drinking which effectively undermines other messages directed at this age group —  all with the complete cooperation of student associations, who, I am told, receive a tidy financial benefit.  JBOC boasts an active presence with sponsored events at 13 Australian universities: Adelaide, ANU, Curtin, Griffith, Gold Coast, James Cook, LaTrobe, Newcastle, QUT, UNSW, USyd, UWA, and Wollongong.

Aiding and abetting the alcohol industry in encouraging young people to drink, and to drink to excess, is not obviously consistent with Australian universities’ alcohol policies.  According to the University of Wollongong’s policy, ‘The University does not condone any social function that has as a purpose or focus the rapid or over-consumption of alcohol.’

James Cook University’s policy, which applies to all functions held at the university, states that: ‘Organisers must ensure that consumption of alcohol is a social adjunct to, and not the purpose of, the function.’

At the ANU, the senior representative of the administration with whom I spoke did not seem terribly concerned about the JBOC Oktoberfest event.  She had not been aware of exactly what the event would involve, but was confident that the responsible service of alcohol was taken seriously by all campus venues.

Two years ago, the Newcastle University Students Association (NUSA) urged the university to reconsider its support for a program that used students to promote Jim Beam on campus. The NUSA objected to the ‘Jim Beam Ambassadors’ program which used scantily clad female students to run on-campus competitions. The NUSA claimed that its opposition the promotion of alcohol on campus was not being supported by the university administration, which seemed to have a more liberal view.  The NUSA claimed that, as an organisation, they did not promote the consumption of alcohol nor accept donations from companies that sell or promote alcohol. That position, the NUSA claimed, is, ‘just indicative of the way universities are going”.  According to the JBOC website, JBOC continues to sponsor activities at Newcastle.

Excessive alcohol consumption, particularly the consumption of large quantities on single occasions (‘binge drinking’) has been associated with a number of harms to the drinker and to others.  Given what appears to be the pervasiveness of alcohol use on university campuses, however, are these industry promotions really such a problem?  As with so many public health problems which involve a range of influences, establishing cause-effect relationships is tricky.

A study published this month in the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health reports a link between high levels of drinking among university students and an increased prevalence of risky and unwanted sexual experiences, and also notes that, ‘the alcohol-promoting environment that they experience at university contributes to their drinking trajectories’.

Lead author Professor Jennie Connor of the University of Otago comments that, ‘To reduce harmful levels of drinking amongst students, universities need to work with local government and police to reduce the availability and promotion of alcohol on and around campuses, and to treat alcohol as a serious health issue for young people.’

Concerns about the alarming levels of alcohol problems and risky drinking among young people have recently led to the establishment of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth (MCAAY) at Curtin University. In launching the Centre, Malcolm McCusker commented that, ‘Young people in particular need to acknowledge that ‘getting blind drunk’ is not cool, in fact, it can have disastrous consequences.’ The JBOC promotional events appear to be specifically calculated to effectively neutralise such messages.

Jim Beam is a member of the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, whose Chair is a member of the Board of DrinkWise. DrinkWise lists its goals as working towards ‘a safer and more responsible drinking culture’ and ‘effecting real cultural and generational change in relation to alcohol misuse’.  It is difficult to see how industry-sponsored drinking parties for university students are consistent with these ambitions.

Discussions about the drinking culture and the role of alcohol promotions seem to have ignored the more than one million students enrolled at Australia’s universities.

If Australia’s universities are not willing to declare an end to JBOC-type promotions, we must hope that governments will adopt regulatory initiatives sufficient to ensure that such things join youth-oriented tobacco promotions in the dustbin of marketing history.

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Croakey writes: A few years ago I interviewed some of those involved in implementing campus-wide programs to reduce harmful alcohol consumption at some campuses in the US, for this report for the Milbank Memorial Fund.

It noted that at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, binge drinking rates fell after the introduction of a comprehensive program aimed at creating an environment that supports low-risk drinking. The program was developed and implemented by a broad-based coalition of town and gown interests. Ongoing evaluation of the program is contributing to development of the evidence base for alcohol control policies. While the evidence from systematic reviews is important in shaping such programs, the implementation process is also critical.

Is any similar work being done in Australia, I wonder?

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