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Minnesota needs to revisit youth binge drinking

Although many Minnesotan colleges and universities already have some sort of alcohol education for first-year students, supplementing with eCHUG could improve outcomes. 

On the morning of Dec. 10, 2014, Sandra Lommen, a 20-year-old Bemidji State University nursing student, was found unconscious in the woods near her college campus. Showing signs of hypothermia and intoxication, she was transported by emergency personnel to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center but was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Lommen was attending a house party the night before and found herself lost on the way back to her dorm room. Because Lommen was underage, a criminal investigation ensued on how she became intoxicated and who provided alcohol to her. Bemidji Police conducted the operation until March 2015 but ultimately filed no charges.

Aditya Parikh

Alcohol-related incidents among teenagers and college students are unfortunately common to the state of Minnesota. A 2015 report suggests that underage drinking costs the state almost $600 million annually and is linked to more than 6,500 violent crimes. University of Minnesota data also indicates that student binge drinkers are much more likely to damage property or sexually take advantage of another person. This is paired with high rates of youth binge drinking in our state — as 34.2 percent of Minnesotans between the ages of 18 and 20 report binge drinking in the past month. For youth between the ages of 15 and 17, the rate is 11.4 percent. Moreover, of the 142,000 Minnesotans between the ages of 15 and 20 who regularly use alcohol, over two-thirds binge drink.

Pressure to drink

Some research proposes that for underage drinkers in similar situations to Lommen, the pressure to drink comes from concern about peer acceptance and social approval. Even before college, social events featuring alcohol have become common for high school students across Minnesota. The pressure to drink only intensifies during college, a context in which students interact less with parents and have more unstructured time available to them. Indeed, 75 percent of first-semester college students report engaging in risky behavior — like alcohol use — simply to fit in. Many students also perceive blackouts and hangovers to be neutral or even positive consequences of drinking.

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Since youth alcohol consumption can be fueled by a desire to fit in, exposing Minnesotan teenagers and college students to normative data — information on how their alcohol consumption compares to the rest of the population — could significantly curb binge drinking and alcohol consumption. This is exactly the goal of the eCHECKUP TO GO (eCHUG) program, an online behavior intervention application developed by counselors and psychologists at San Diego State University. In less than 10 minutes, students can enter information about their individual drinking history and receive normative feedback on their alcohol consumption.

Although many Minnesotan colleges and universities already implement some sort of alcohol education for first-year students, supplementing with eCHUG could improve outcomes. One notable study separated 350 high-risk college students into eCHUG and non-eCHUG groups and followed them for three months during their first semester on-campus. At the study’s completion, students part of the eCHUG group reported a 58 percent reduction in peak drinking, 65 percent reduction in intoxication frequency, and 34 percent reduction in weekly drinking from baseline measurements.

In contrast, students in the non-eCHUG group reported increases of 11 percent, 15 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. Moreover, eCHUG can also realize success at the high school level, as another study has demonstrated that high school students — as young as ninth grade — while using eCHUG report reduced drinking frequency and fewer alcohol-related consequences in comparison to students not using eCHUG.

eCHUG is highly implementable

It is important to remember that most Minnesotan youth do not drink at all. It is a misconception that teenagers and college students need to drink to fit in; illustrating this to our youth may be the best way to longitudinally combat binge drinking.

Sandra Lommen’s death was an unfortunate tragedy, but more than two years later, our state still has not effectively responded. However, at only $975 per year per organization, eCHUG is highly implementable across the state in our high schools, colleges, and universities. I urge us to all get behind this proven tool and commit to preventing tragedies like Sandra’s in the future.

Aditya Parikh is a third-year economics undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota and is currently studying health policy at the School of Public Health.

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