Acting U.S. surgeon general visits URI campus

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KINGSTON, R.I.—April 2, 2009 –The acting surgeon general says URI could be a regional model in the fight against underage drinking.

Steven Galson included a stop at URI’s Kingston campus March 26 during his visit to Rhode Island at the invitation of First Lady Suzanne Carcieri, ’65, wife of Gov. Donald L. Carcieri and a member of the National Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol-Free.

Aware of President Robert L. Carothers’ local and national leadership on the issue of underage drinking, Galson, a U.S. rear admiral and acting assistant secretary for health, came to hear more.

He called the prevention of underage drinking a pressing public health problem, one that is controversial and a challenge for faculty and administrators at campuses around the country. He noted that college is where students come to realize their full potential but said that underage drinking imperils that process.

Underage drinking is not discouraged at some colleges, gets facilitated at others, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes even encouraged with a wink and a nod. “Some colleges benignly accept underage drinking as an integral part of the campus experience,” Galson said.

Carothers noted that about 100 college presidents across the country called on lawmakers last year to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

“What they are doing is giving up. Making it (underage drinking) go away by removing the law.”

The president urged the acting surgeon general to consider doing something with alcohol that another surgeon general did years ago with cigarette smoking –make it dangerous to your health.

Mark Wood, psychology professor and a leading researcher on the subject of underage drinking, gave a slide presentation on URI’s multiple efforts, which he created with his colleague, Daniel Graney. The talk was aptly called “A Party School in Recovery: Lessons Learned—So Far.”

Wood first gave national statistics on problems associated with college student drinking: 1,700 alcohol-related deaths per year, 599,000 alcohol-related injuries, 696,000 alcohol-related assaults, 97,000 alcohol-related sexual assaults.

Wood said that by the early ‘90s there was clear evidence of detrimental effects of alcohol abuse at URI –on students’ health, safety, educational attainment, and the University’s reputation as Princeton Review’s No. 1 Party School in America. Binge drinking rates were higher than national averages.

URI instituted a “three strikes” policy in 1991 and saw a 56 percent decrease in serious alcohol violations. In 1995, the policy was strengthened and publicized. By 1997, URI showed significant decreases in binge drinking, one of 9 (out of 116 universities studied) to do so.

The President’s A-Team, composed of staff, faculty, and students from 10 campus departments, formed in 1998. Its mission is to reduce alcohol and substance abuse using unified, science-based collaborative approaches, to disseminate the findings, and share them to inform prevention science. The team has been awarded numerous national grants. Changes at URI included an alcohol-free homecoming, a Greek party moratorium, parent notification, and off-campus jurisdiction. Psychology, communications, and human development courses were infused with alcohol-related curriculum, and alcohol use and misuse were subjects at freshmen orientations.

URI partnered with local communities and worked collaboratively with URI’s Greek Advisory Coalition, local police and local alcohol retailers.

In 2003, URI received a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund Common Ground, a five-year, community-based program designed to pioneer scientific information for new collaborative and community-based approaches for the reduction of problems related to college drinking.

Annual student surveys reveal significant increases in awareness of enforcement measures; and perceived consequences of drinking and driving. Police data revealed a 27 percent decrease in off-campus student specific noise complaints.