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Changing the culture of college drinking

Dear University of Maryland community,

The Prince George's County Board of License Commissioners has approved UMD's request to sell beer at football and basketball games on a one-year trial basis, starting this fall. 

This is not just about alcohol sales and the fan experience at athletic venues. It is also about changing the culture and habits of alcohol consumption.

There will be stringent controls on sales: Only one drink will be sold per transaction. Purchasers must show government-issued ID. Anyone who misrepresents his or her age and/or provides the drink for an underage person will be immediately and permanently expelled from the venue and prosecuted under the law and/or Code of Student Conduct. 

Further, all servers will be certified under state-approved training. Sales will cease before a game ends. Added police and security staff will be deployed. A designated driver and cab program will be promoted throughout the venue.

The net revenue from the sales, estimated at ~$500,000, will be earmarked for student services: mental health counseling, sexual assault prevention, and responsible drinking. 

The Student Government Association initiated this proposal. The University Senate referred it to the Athletics Council for review. After studying it for nearly a year, it endorsed the proposal—as did the Division of Student Affairs, the UMD Police Department, the College Park City Council, and the leaders of the Old Town/CP Civic Association and the Prince George's County Property Owners' Association.

The University is committed to a safe and healthy environment for living, learning, and entertainment on campus. This includes reducing high-risk ("binge") drinking and its harmful impacts. Our twofold strategy is (1) extensive alcohol education, counseling, and prevention programs in compliance with applicable drinking laws and (2) facilitating safe and responsible drinking in a carefully monitored environment for those over the age of 21. 

The conventional approach to curb excessive drinking is to restrict or ban access to alcohol. While sensible in theory, it has been largely ineffective in practice. In many large universities with big time athletics and a sizeable Greek campus community, this approach has driven college drinking "underground" to off-campus and unsupervised settings.

Recently, the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and West Virginia University have begun stadium sales of beer and wine. Their data show that alcohol violations and disorderly conduct by students have actually declined compared to previous years when such sales were banned. Last week, Ohio State University and the University of Texas-Austin announced that they too will end the prohibition of alcohol sales in their stadiums starting this fall.

Of course, the reported outcomes are not necessarily "caused" by stadium sales. There are many other factors—such as policies, interventions, attitudes—that influence drinking behavior.

At UMD, we have taken the following actions to change the campus culture: sponsor (with the Inter-Fraternity Council) on-campus and monitored tailgates for students over 21, which has led to a reduction of unsupervised off-campus tailgates; extend the Student Conduct Code's reach so students are held accountable beyond campus boundaries; sponsor alcohol-free tailgates for underage students; increase "party patrols" and "knock talks" in city neighborhoods by UMD police; enact a Good Samaritan policy; expand alcohol education and prevention.

Over the past few years, UMD students who report excess drinking have gone down from 45% to 37% (the range in Big Ten schools is 32% to 54%). Those who report abstaining from alcohol have gone up 16% to 24%. 

There is no simple and quick solution to the national issue of excessive drinking. (1 in 3 U.S. adults over 18 drinks excessively according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.) We are making and we will continue to make slow-but-steady progress in changing the culture of drinking at UMD.

It is said that "If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we always got." This is why we are undertaking this one-year trial. 

I ask all members of our community to do their part to make legal, safe, and responsible drinking the norm at UMD. At the end of the year, we will conduct a review to assess the future of this new initiative. 

Wallace D. Loh
University of Maryland