Bottles cans and binging

Chico State seems to be fighting a losing war against binge drinking

photo by Tom Angel

Twelve steps back: Alcoholics Anonymous reports that it has upwards of 2.1 million members worldwide. More than half of them, 1.1 million, are Americans.

What can a university do to convince its students not to drink themselves to oblivion or even death? Why do so many students drink, anyway? How do you go about changing a party-hearty image that has attracted so many students without losing a sense of general campus and community fun?

Tough questions, all. They’re also all questions that Chico State University officials have been trying to answer for more than a decade, with few positive results. Even as the university poured additional money into its Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center (CADEC) for education and research, Chico State students have continued to consume vast quantities of alcohol.

Let’s face it, Chico has a reputation for being a mellow, laid-back town with a rowdy college party scene and plenty of booze.

Many if not most of Chico’s community traditions that are heavily attended by university students are alcohol-centered or -associated: the big annual drunken Labor Day float down the Sacramento River; the huge St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween celebrations downtown, which now draw people from all over the state; even the comparably tame Taste of Chico summertime festival, which is often marred by drunken revelers.

And if the thriving downtown bar scene is any indication, the booze business is booming. In the downtown area alone (which neighbors the university), there are upward of a dozen bars. Most weekend nights, there are long lines to get inside and packed dance floors.

Drive around Chico’s southside neighborhood at 11 or so on almost any weekend night, and chances are you’ll find at least one or two large, rowdy, beer-fueled parties. The annual CADEC-sponsored Fun Without Alcohol Fair, though widely attended, is among many campus circles a bit of a joke.

And each year, it seems, there’s at least one binge drinking death.

Last October, it was the alcohol poisoning death of 18-year-old Adrian Heideman that seemed (at least temporarily) to shock the university community into a get-tough stance on alcohol. But even since then, there have been two more alcohol-related deaths among Chico State students, both of whom were hit by trains while they were drunk.

A study conducted by CADEC last year found that a full 59 percent of Chico State students had been “binge drinking"—they imbibed upward of five alcoholic drinks in a single sitting—within the previous month, said university spokesman Joe Wills. It was that large number, along with the general worry that many CSU students all over the state were developing a dependency on alcohol, that helped lead the CSU system to adopt a systemwide alcohol policy.

But while system public-relations spokespeople hailed the plan as “sweeping,” it includes few changes to the alcohol plan that Chico State already had.

The main focus of the systemwide plan is a recommendation of “comprehensive alcohol policies and programs.” It encourages consistent enforcement of policies, regular gathering of and reporting of data to the CSU trustees, an annual review of policies by a universitywide council, a review of state laws, intervention and treatment options and a limit on alcohol vendor advertising.

The policy also provides each campus $1.1 million to fund the efforts.

But the question remains: Will all the recommendations, data-gathering and education really stop college freshmen from binge drinking?

“Will we ever be able to stop students from coming to college and experimenting with alcohol?” Wills asked rhetorically. “The answer to that is ‘no.’ That’s part of the process; they come here and want to stretch their wings. The trick is to not let it get out of hand.”

Although the university has been trying to limit binge drinking and redefine its party-hearty image since 1989, when Playboy magazine named Chico State as the top party school in the nation, to little avail, Wills said he hopes that a new strategy will help: social norming.

The philosophy of social norming is this, Wills said: People will tend to act the way they perceive their peers act. If they think, for example, that everyone around them will be wearing purple T-shirts, they will tend to want to fit in.

So it goes with heavy drinking at Chico State, Wills said.

“While our students do drink a lot, they don’t drink as much as they think they do,” Wills said.

The university’s new President’s Advisory Task Force on Alcohol will mount a massive campaign this fall, Wills said, to convince students of just that. He pointed out that last year’s widely hailed cooperation between the Chico police, university officials and downtown bar owners resulted in smaller and less violent Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and said he hopes that the cooperation will continue.

But he admitted that the university would never be able to stop binge drinking completely.

“The fact of the matter is, the university can do everything in its power to limit access to alcohol on campus to students,” he said. “But they live in the world. … They can walk right off campus, and there are bars everywhere, a whole different ethic at work. It’s very difficult.”

It may be that America’s prohibition on alcohol use by minors contributes to the problem, by making drinking a rite of passage into adulthood. In many countries that have no such prohibition and even young children are exposed to moderate alcohol use—France, Italy and Spain, for example—binge drinking is virtually unknown.

Ultimately, as long as students think drinking themselves into a stupor is normal, even expected behavior, it probably will continue. And only when they themselves agree that becoming so drunk that one loses control—of behavior or bodily functions—is intolerable and to be shunned will they stop doing it.