Alcohol task force finalizing recommendations

Bruce Wright and Stacey Aggabao at Pullman Regional Hospital
Collaboration: Dr. Bruce Wright of WSU’s Health and Wellness Services with
Stacey Aggabao, emergency room director of Pullman Regional Hospital.
(Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)
PULLMAN, Wash. – Last call for binge drinking – that’s the message from Washington State University.
An alcohol and drug task force formed in the fall by WSU President Elson S. Floyd is developing a blueprint to cut a disturbing trend at colleges nationwide – alcohol abuse among students.
Floyd assembled the group in the wake of the alcohol-poisoning death of freshman Kenny Hummel, who was found unconscious in a residence hall on Oct. 27 and died a short time later at Pullman Regional Hospital. The 18-year-old became one of an estimated 2,000 college students between ages 18 and 24 who die from alcohol-related incidents each year, according to statistics from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
After reviewing a decade’s worth of data on alcohol-related incidents among WSU students, the 17-member task force is drafting plans that include a ramped-up mandatory education program for freshmen, a new model for screening and intervention, and collaboration with the Pullman hospital’s emergency department.
“Trying to change behavior by using stern lectures and scare tactics won’t work. It requires a multipronged approach that reaches into the community,” said Bruce Wright, a psychiatrist who chairs the task force and is also executive director of WSU’s Health and Wellness Services.
binge drinking
“It’s not that more students are drinking or that they’re drinking more often,” he said. “The data is telling us that, for the most part, some higher-risk students are consuming greater amounts of alcohol in short periods of time. It’s an extreme, high-risk form of drinking that we’re confronting.”
College drinking culture
Binge drinking – downing at least five drinks in a row for a man, four for a woman – appears “culturally entrenched,” said Wright. “Not only can it impact how students perform in school but it can determine whether they live or die.”
The problem is not unique to WSU. Numerous studies, including one conducted nationwide over an eight-year period by the Harvard School of Public Health, cite an increase in binge drinking among college students: “The drinking style of many college students is one of excess and intoxication,” concluded researchers in what’s considered the mother-of-all drinking studies. (See
What’s driving this drinking-to-excess trend?
After reviewing WSU’s 10 years of data and surveying students, several probabilities are coming into focus, said Wright – including wide availability of inexpensive alcohol near campus, drinking games, energy drinks and Internet culture. All of these correlate with what’s being seen on a national level, he said:
* “Research tells us that a significant link exists between binge drinking; close, easy access to alcohol; and special promotions such as drink bargains,” said Wright. Students can buy alcohol where they buy gas or buy milk. And when bars draw in students with prominently advertised happy hours and drink specials, it “fuels heavy drinking behavior.”
energy drinks* At WSU and elsewhere, research shows an increasing link between caffeinated energy drinks and alcohol abuse. Hummel’s family has publicly said they believe he died of a lethal mix of energy drinks and alcohol. The drinks, largely marketed toward adolescents and young adults, contain enough caffeine to produce physical and behavioral problems when combined with alcohol, said Wright. What’s more, because caffeine can mask the alcohol’s effects, “students may continue to drink not realizing how intoxicated they really are.”
* Drinking apps for mobile devices and drinking games – including online versions – encourage fast, intense liquor consumption. And YouTube videos that flaunt the drunken, the slurring, the passed out, “appear to provide a sort of badge of honor” to the inebriated subject, said Wright.
Partnering with hospital
Emergency room workers at Pullman Regional Hospital treat an average of 200 students each year for alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries, according to ER director Stacey Aggabao, who also serves on the task force. From now on, “every one of those students will be screened to assess whether they’re at risk for substance-abuse problems,” she said.
If so, emergency room staff will work with WSU Health and Wellness to intervene and get them help. Recently, a medical expert from the University of Wisconsin trained 75 people from both institutions on the new model they’ll be using. Called SBIRT (screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment), it’s a “public health approach designed to deliver early intervention and treatment to persons with substance abuse problems and also those at risk of developing problems,” Wright said.
At the health and wellness clinic, SBIRT will be integrated into each student primary-care visit, with follow-through as needed, he said.
Getting real
“Booze, Sex and Reality Checks” is a mandatory program of discussion sessions on drug and alcohol abuse and sexual decision making for WSU freshmen. The course was started this school year, and students who don’t complete it can’t register for a second semester.
The task force is evaluating students’ feedback on the program, as well as on a website created by WSU’s Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment and Prevention Services ( “to see what changes will be most effective in reaching our students,” Wright said.
“In a non-preachy, realistic way, we impart the message that binge drinking is not about fun and games,” he said. “We treat them as adults, not kids.”
So far, analysis reveals that “Booze, Sex and Reality Checks” was effective at reducing the likelihood of dangerous drinking, said Wright, especially among Greek housing residents.

Kyle Erdman
Taking the we’re-all-adults-here approach is essential to altering campus drinking culture, said ASWSU student president Kyle Erdman, a fraternity member who is on the task force.
“If you want to make lasting change in behaviors, you have to engage students, not lecture them,” he said. “When freshmen arrive on campus, it’s a teachable moment. I say use it, but use it right, year after year. Over time, I think we’ll see a shift in the way students think about alcohol.”
The task force will submit a list of recommendations to Floyd in mid-April. A forum, “Cougs Under the Influence,” will be held tonight at 8 p.m. in studio A of the Murrow West building.
Bruce Wright, WSU Health and Wellness Services, 509-335-3575,
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209,
Kyle Erdman, ASWSU president, 509-335-9677,

Next Story

WORD Fellows applications open for spring cohort

Faculty system-wide are invited to apply to the Writing Occurring Rhetorically in the Disciplines program to learn ways to design more effective writing instruction.

Recent News

Announcing the search for a new provost

As WSU continues to evolve, the dual role of provost and Pullman campus chancellor is being divided into two separate positions.

The past is not that long ago

Washington State Magazine explores the complicated ties that continue to reverberate between the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous tribes and the first Jesuit priest to the region.

Aging societies more vulnerable to collapse

Societies and political structures, like the humans they serve, appear to become more fragile as they age, according to an analysis of hundreds of pre-modern societies.