Defining the Task at Hand

The Committee to Address Alcohol and Health must confront the many abuse problems present on Harvard’s campus

Michael R. Conti

From September 1998 to August 1999, 18 students were treated for alcohol poisoning at Harvard University Health Services (UHS). Last year, the number was 123. And this September—in just one month—24 students were treated for alcohol at UHS. These staggering numbers likely indicate a greater willingness of students to seek help for alcohol-related sickness, but they nevertheless underscore the need to address alcohol abuse on campus. Last week, citing this significant upsurge, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 announced his intention to create a Committee to Address Alcohol and Health to improve alcohol education and treatment for Harvard students.

Over the next three days, we will explore the status of alcohol on campus: the problems Harvard currently faces, the ideal campus alcohol policy and our recommendations for the committee as it critiques the current policies. On the most basic level, ameliorating the problems with alcohol on campus requires correctly identifying them. Today’s editorial will focus on the problems with alcohol on campus that are most in need of attention.

In a Harvard survey issued last fall, 34.5 percent of males and 26.9 percent of females acknowledged drinking five drinks or more in one sitting—the standard definition of “binge drinking”—at least once over the course of two weeks. Close to 10 percent of all students drank this much on three to five occasions during a two-week period. These figures are up from a survey completed in 2000 and indicate that a substantial portion of undergraduate students abuse alcohol on a regular basis. In examining these numbers, the committee must be conscious of the varying ways students use alcohol on campus. Many students at the College drink responsibly; some binge drink on a regular basis. Some students infrequently, maybe once or twice in their college careers, drink a life-threatening amount of alcohol; others exhibit behavior that indicates a potential dependency on alcohol—1 percent of students surveyed reported binge drinking at least three times a week.

There are three primarily concerns that arise from episodes of undergraduate binge drinking. The first and most apparent is that students drink more than their bodies can withstand, and they get violently ill, resulting in trips to UHS or area hospitals. Out of 24 admits to UHS this September, two students actually entered comas as a result of drinking. The potential for alcohol poisoning and death is very real, and Gross has cited the health crisis as his primary concerns in creating the committee.

As much as this would be sufficient reason to attempt to improve students’ relationships with alcohol, other problems arise from alcohol as well. In the same survey, 18.3 percent of students responded that they had been physically injured as a result of alcohol, with 3.1 percent having inflicted injury on someone else. Violent outbursts, fights and vandalism can all be consequences of excessive alcohol consumption.

Student sexual behavior is also influenced by alcohol abuse. According to the survey, 9.8 percent of students reported that they engaged in unprotected sex as a consequence of drinking. Binge drinking also increases the risk of sexual assault. Harvard administrators have often cited alcohol as a mitigating factor in the sexual assault cases that are reported. Reducing alcohol abuse on campus is vital to ensuring the safety of Harvard undergraduates.

Alcohol abuse also has links to mental health concerns—the Committee to Address Alcohol and Health is aptly named. Alcohol serves as both a cause and a result of mental health issues. In constructing solutions to the problems of alcohol on campus, the committee will need to consider alcohol dependency among Harvard students as well.

While the committee will address health and safety problems resulting from binge drinking, the culture and social life at Harvard also perpetuate alcohol abuse and determine whether students seek treatment. These issues are essential to understanding and improving students’ relationships with alcohol, and they fall under the purview of the committee. Many first-years and upperclass students display nonchalance toward alcohol or valorize excessive drinking. For reform to be truly effective, policies must work to change student attitudes as well as behavior.

Gross has charged the committee with a daunting but crucial task. Alcohol abuse at Harvard is a dangerous problem; in the coming months, Gross’s committee will have the opportunity to improve student life and student health on campus in a fundamental way.