Florida colleges target binge drinking

On any given night, a University of Central Florida student can drink without a lot of money, difficulty or limits.

Bars on the outskirts of campus offer “Two-dollar Tuesdays,” “Wasted Wednesdays,” “Bombs Away Fridays” or even specials challenging students to slam down 60 shots of beer in 60 minutes.

“We’re out four times a week, at least,” said Alex Bozinta, 21, who ordered three drinks at a popular bar recently so she wouldn’t have to fight the crowd as often. “We drink and drink. As long as you get drunk, it’s fun.”

As classes and football games began for a new season, UCF and universities throughout Florida have been creating more stringent rules that attempt to curb underage drinking, as well as its dangerous counterpart: binge drinking.
“The problem isn’t when you start drinking, it’s how much you start drinking,” said Tom Hall, UCF’s director of alcohol and other drug-prevention programming. “When you have a culture that supports excessive alcohol use, you have a problem.”

College campuses around the country are challenged as studies and experience show students above and below the legal age guzzling unprecedented amounts of alcohol.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 1,700 college students between ages 18 and 24 die of alcohol-related causes each year, while about 600,000 suffer from alcohol-related injuries.

Nearly 25 percent of all college students report academic consequences of drinking, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall, the study found.

For UCF’s part, the school banned alcoholic beverages at Knights football games. Anyone caught drinking can be ejected from the stadium, and underage drinkers may be arrested. Tailgate drinking, however, is permitted in parking lots from 7 a.m. until game time.

But college leaders agree campuses can’t be the only place students are punished for alcohol abuse. Universities are pushing parents, students, vendors and community groups to help young drinkers understand their limits.

“There are so many sources and so many places where students get ideas about alcohol,” said Chris Franzetti, assistant director of health promotion for Florida State University. “Whether it’s easy access, inconsistent laws and policies or behaviors learned from home, we all have a part in it.”

At the University of Florida in Gainesville, named the nation’s No. 1 party school, the problem might be at its worst.

Trustees there are poised to approve a ban on drinking games, kegs and “beer balls,” which hold the equivalent of 55 beer cans. Other Florida universities have similar policies.

UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said the school had four or five alcohol-related deaths several years ago, which prompted the school to revise the student code with changes that likely will take effect this fall.

“That was a wakeup call that we need to do something,” Sikes said.

One new policy bans activities that encourage alcohol abuse: Drinking games, kegs and the beer balls would be prohibited.

Last week, University of South Florida officials banned daytime drinking at a new on-campus bar and grill. Students and employees were found drinking between classes and during lunch.

In July, more than 100 university presidents — including leaders at Duke, Johns Hopkins and Ohio State — signed a proposal to support lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18.

“A culture of dangerous, clandestine ’binge-drinking’ often conducted off campus has developed,” the open letter said. It asks the national university system to begin a public debate on the drinking age.

“Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students,” the letter also said.

The initiative has caused a roar of controversy from opposing groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which counters that lowering the drinking age won’t solve problems on campuses. Many experts agreed that lowering the legal age won’t fix a college culture that accepts binge drinking as the norm.

The majority of students believe binge drinking is a rite of passage, UCF’s Hall said. But his research at the school found that 20 percent of students aren’t drinking.

Those students, however, believe they’re among an even smaller minority, about 5 percent.

“That’s one of the myths about college drinking,” Hall said. “Nationally, about 23 percent of students are the extreme drinkers, so the notion that ’everyone is doing it’ isn’t accurate. But 23 percent is still too big of a number.”

Students gathered in loose lines outside a bar near UCF, waiting for muscled bouncers to place wristbands on the legal drinkers. For a $10 cover, they would be drinking without limit until midnight.

They headed to the bar where plastic cups were filled with cheap beer and liquor mixed in various concoctions.

Some students played “beer pong” on a side table. Other students moved against one another on a makeshift dance floor.

Richard Devoss, 21, lit a cigarette and leaned back on his barstool while talking with a handful of buddies from the Orlando-based Marine Mechanics Institute.
He sipped vodka mixed with water and lime juice.

“We went out last night, and we came out tonight,” Devoss said. “When I leave, I’ll be stumbling.”

Devoss estimated that by closing time at 2 a.m., he would have 12 drinks. His friends vowed to drink about the same, some as many as 15 in one sitting.

Calvin Serviss, 22, a fifth-year UCF senior, said he wouldn’t be out so often if it weren’t for the specials.

“They make the bars much more popular,” Serviss said as he sipped from a beer. “Obviously, I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have them. I couldn’t afford it.”

Some believe bars near campus, which offer all-you-can-drink specials every night of the week, are a big part of the problem.

But in many cities, businesses have signed “responsible retailing” pacts designed to curb underage and excessive use by limiting or ending the daily specials.

Orange County is attempting to create a similar agreement using a task force of students, law enforcement and retailers. Teams are focusing on education, health and retailer responsibility.

“We’ve always done this from an enforcement side, but now we need help from community partners,” Hall from UCF said. “The biggest thing is targeting advertisements.”

Carol Burkett, who sits on the task force and directs Orange County’s Coalition for a Drug Free Community, said binge drinking is more accepted and younger students are drinking more.

“In the ’70s, you didn’t have high-risk drink promotions,” she said. “Now, media advertisements tell students that drinking is acceptable, sexy, fun: It looks like the place to be.”

But Mike McCoy, Orange County public safety director and co-chairman of the underage drinking task force, said attitudes about what’s unsafe could change. At one time, for example, many people refused to wear seat belts.

“Back then, we thought we couldn’t do anything, but I think we will pass beyond that,” he said. “You will see the generation saying it’s so senseless, and we can do things about it.”
source: Pensacola News Journal