Local officials discuss alcohol abuse

Published: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 1:40 a.m.
An apparent increase in alcohol use among college-age students is again spurring educators, law enforcement and local politicians to find ways to stem the tide of alcohol use and the problems that it brings.
Nearly three out of four University of Florida students younger than 21 reported drinking alcohol last fall - 5 percent more than just two years before, according to a recent UF survey.
Binge drinking among students is up, too. Almost 57 percent admitted to downing five or more cocktails in one sitting, up from 44 percent in the spring of 2002
The statistics are sobering to UF President Bernie Machen, who during his career has been stationed in numerous university communities, but none with a student population as large as that of Gainesville. Combine UF's 48,000 students with Santa Fe Community College's 16,000 or so, and the city's population is half students.
"I have not been used to the amount of drinking on campus and around town," Machen said Tuesday at a meeting to come up with a communitywide plan to slow the beer tap.
He had convened those who have seen the problem and its effects firsthand: educators, the sheriff, police chiefs, city and county commissioners and physicians.
Alcohol abuse by underage students - even those in high school and middle school - poses a serious health and safety risk that a community like Gainesville must attack on all fronts, Machen said. Sexual abuse, rape and assaults are some of the consequences of excessive drinking.
Four UF students have died in alcohol-related incidents in the past 18 months.
"We are the youngest county in the state," Sheriff Steve Oelrich said. "It's not unusual for deputies to go to a party and see 500 or so students there. And 30 or 40 of them will be on a balcony designed for 10."
State Attorney Bill Cervone said alcohol plays a role in well more than half of the juvenile cases that come to him - and many of those are with students not yet old enough to go to college.
"The problem starts way before students get to the university," Cervone said.
Learned behaviors, peer pressure, coming-of-age rituals, social norms and lack of parental support all contribute to a host of reasons young people drink in the first place.
There was consensus for a need to change the culture. But how? And what would keep an initiative moving?
Similar efforts have been tried before locally and abandoned - or rather interest waned.
The Gainesville Alcohol Abuse Prevention Committee was formed in 1999, following the deaths of UF student Brian Tew and High Springs resident Wesley Ormsbee. Both were killed from injuries sustained in fights at large, off-campus parties.
Police patrols were increased, particularly on football game days and UF rescinded its "Pass-Out" policy, which allowed people to leave the stadium at half-time. UF, SFCC and the police and sheriff's deputies continue with their own initiatives to stem alcohol abuse.
Part of the city of Gainesville's ongoing plan includes asking the state Legislature to give it special authority to outlaw "Bellybuster" drink specials that offer two-for-one, three-for-one or girls-drink-free specials to draw students in.
According to City Manager Marion Radson, the city has no legal way to control advertising or marketing of alcoholic beverages.
City officials plan to ask the county's five-member legislative delegation to back their request, even though a powerful alcoholic beverage lobby is expected to rail against it.
UF plans to support the measure, Machen said.
But even more can be done, and Machen plans for UF to lead the charge.
"I'm passionate about this issue," he said.
UF Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin explained that numerous communities have joined with universities to develop integrated programs to curb alcohol use.
Promising strategies include:
  • Refusing alcohol industry sponsorship for university events.
  • Developing alcohol-free, late-night activities.
  • Increasing enforcement at events where alcohol is served.
  • Creating marketing campaigns to combat student misconceptions about alcohol.
  • Imposing penalties for policy violations.
    "The No. 1 common denominator of successful programs is that the community has come together to address this," Telles-Irvin said.
    No concrete plans were decided on Tuesday. Rather, the meeting was a brainstorming session to begin laying the groundwork for an action plan that could be developed by the end of the year.
    Machen said he also plans to solicit input and comments from students.
    "Ultimately, they've got to buy into it," Machen said.
    The committee's next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 16 at the Reitz Union Grand Ballroom at 9 a.m. Laurie Davidson, associate director of the Center for College Health and Safety of the U.S. Department of Education, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker.
    Janine Young Sikes can be reached at (352) 337-0327 or sikesj@gvillesun.com.

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