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Commentary: Working Together to Improve Public Health and Safety on College Campuses

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Across the country, college and university campuses are welcoming new and returning students. As the first hints of fall are felt, excitement and opportunity are in the air. At the same time, we know the new school year also ushers in risks. For about 40 percent of college students, binge drinking will be a part of their college experience. Making matters worse, a 2010 national survey found that about 14 percent of college students reported marijuana or other drug use over the past month. It is no surprise that binge drinking and drug use are problems on our campuses. Nor is it a surprise to learn that drug use and addiction can result in missed classes and lower grades.

The good news is that we know we can make progress. One of the most important ways we can improve public health and safety on campus is by treating drug addiction as a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. As part of this effort, 
the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has partnered with the Departments of Education, and Health and Human Services, college and university presidents and other leaders in higher education to implement a comprehensive strategy to address the challenge of underage drinking and drug use on campus. This plan supports the President’s recently released 2011 National Drug Control Strategy, which also calls for a new Healthy College Campuses grant program to support drug, violence, binge drinking prevention and collegiate recovery programs.

As part of our efforts, ONDCP is encouraging colleges and universities to use an innovative program called SBIRT – Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment—in college health centers. SBIRT programs are effective in detecting troublesome drug use early and treating it before it becomes a more serious problem. But detecting and treating substance abuse problems in a health setting is just one part of the solution. We must also support students who are in successful recovery.

As part of our strategy to help students maintain their recovery from addiction in a challenging environment, we are encouraging the development of collegiate recovery programs and housing for students. Some collegiate recovery housing programs may be affiliated with existing collegiate recovery programs, as is the case with the Rutgers and Case Western programs, while others are free-standing, like the Tribeca Twelve, which is partly based on the Augsburg College StepUp program and will serve college students from across Manhattan. These programs are vital. They help shift social norms on campus and provide opportunities for drug- and alcohol-free community and social events.

So, as students return to campus, we hope you will work with us to ensure a greater percentage of our nation’s students are able to fulfill the promise that college holds. Working together, we can succeed in helping students identify and avoid drugs and social pressures that run counter to their health and safety and help meet President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

David K. Mineta, Deputy Director for Demand Reduction, Office of National Drug Control Policy

2 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of Jeffrey Levy
    Jeffrey Levy / September 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    While encouraged that ONDC is partnered with Departments of Education and HHS, college presidents and others to implement a comprehensive strategy to address the challenge of underage drinking and drug use on campus, I question the apparent assumption that underage binge drinking by college students should generally be subsumed as part of drug addiction and therefore treated primarily as a disease. While fully respecting that alcoholism is recognized as a treatable disease and that there may be health and developmental issues associated with consumption of any amount of alcohol, I believe the vast majority of underage college students who drink do not yet suffer from alcoholism and that their drinking is much more a voluntary behavioral issue rather than an involuntary drug addiction issue. In addition, I am troubled by the apparent concern by ONDCP and some others only with binge or excessive drinking among college students, especially underage college students. Moderation and reduced consumption are not, in my opinion, the appropriate goal nor have efforts to convince underage students to moderate their drinking caused many to abstain or resulted in significant reductions in alcohol related injuries, assaults, deaths or longer term alcohol-related health issues. Instead, I believe the most significant contributor to the college drinking problem is failure by school administrators to enforce state laws and school policies prohibiting consumption of alcohol by underage students and failure by the federal government to enforce federal law which calls for institutions of higher education to consistently enforce disciplinary sanctions for violations of underage drinking prohibitions or suffer loss of any form of federal financial assistance. To the best of my knowledge, few schools strictly enforce these prohibitions; in practice, some even treat all students regardless of age the same when it comes to alcohol consumption; and no school has lost federal funding during the twenty years the federal law has been in effect.

    So while I fully support the numerous grant programs and emphasis on awareness and treatment outlined in the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy, I am disturbed by the lack therein of encouragement of law and policy enforcement. It seems to me that in addition to promoting screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIR) and other awareness and educational programs by colleges and universities, the federal government should be strongly encouraging college presidents to stop tolerating unacceptable underage and binge drinking behaviors and impose serious and meaningful consequences for failure by students to comply with state laws and school policies including, if necessary, suspension or expulsion for repeat offenders.

    Jeffrey Levy
    President, Virginia College Parents

  2. maxwood / September 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    Would Mr. Mineta please comment on the links between binge drinking and the development of nicotine addiction (side-stream smoke inhaled at drinking parties, cigarette as medication for hangover, etc.)? And does marijuana really “make matters worse” when it could sometimes serve as an alternative to drinking?

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