College Drinking – Who’s Problem Is It?

At the American College Health Association’s annual meeting held in June this year, one college health official gave a speech on student alcohol abuse with a frank and peculiar conclusion that colleges simply can’t do anything to stop it.

That’s the gist of a presentation given by Edward Ehlinger, director and chief health officer of Boynton Health Services at the University of Minnesota. As reported in USA Today, Ehlinger spoke at the meeting about alcohol as a problem for society, not for colleges. “I don’t think the problem of alcohol is an underage problem,” he said. “It is not a college or university problem. I think alcohol is a community problem – it is a societal problem. We need to be humble about the fact we don’t know what the heck we’re doing and we need to do something different.”

Ehlinger’s comments would seem to support efforts by groups like the Amethyst Initiative and the National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia that advocate for lowering the U.S. legal drinking age to 18, as if legalizing drinking for 18- to 20-year-olds will suddenly make underage alcohol problems go away. What Ehlinger and these groups ignore, however, is the solid science about the biological effects of alcohol on young people’s health, causing lasting damage to the liver, brain and nervous system, not to mention the escalated risk of accidental injury and death. And as the USA Today article points out, Ehlinger did not explain why colleges frequently work with local governments and businesses to fight other health problems such as H1N1, meningitis and tobacco use, but have yet to address alcohol as a health priority.

In fairness to Ehlinger, his presentation also called for more leadership from college presidents in battling underage drinking on campus, especially public university presidents. “We have let our college presidents off the hook,” he said. “It’s a responsibility that my university president has… to meet with the governor, the state legislature and other government officials to say, ‘this is a problem.’”

While Ehlinger’s point may be well taken that underage drinking is a societal problem, he fails to admit that colleges are part of society too. Underage drinking is a difficult problem, but that should not and does not allow colleges to simply shrug off the responsibility of enforcing laws and protecting student health.

“Campus drinking: colleges’ problem or society’s?,” USA Today, June 4, 2010. 

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