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Liquor flowed freely on Aberdeen Street in Kingston, Ontario during a Queen's University Homecoming party in 2007. (Mark Bergin/The Canadian Press)
Liquor flowed freely on Aberdeen Street in Kingston, Ontario during a Queen's University Homecoming party in 2007. (Mark Bergin/The Canadian Press)

Acadia University leads the way to curb student binge drinking Add to ...

The trophy case of empty liquor bottles that has become a standard of dorm-room decor will not be tolerated at Acadia University next week.

The school in Wolfville, N.S., has rolled out what may be the most comprehensive campus alcohol strategy of any university in response to the alcohol-related death of a student in residence last year.

Drunken revelry, campus vandalism and a hospitalization or two for alcohol poisoning are the norm at the start of the academic year for most Canadian universities, and Acadia and the University of Alberta have introduced measures this fall to combat excessive drinking. Finding the balance between students’ health and safety and their privacy has become a thorny issue.

While the University of Alberta is prohibiting alcohol consumption in public areas of residences, Acadia has adopted a more radical, far-reaching approach. It includes sending letters encouraging parents to have “safe drinking” chats with their children, allowing residence advisers to enter dorm rooms to check for alcohol during “welcome week,” and designating public areas where those who are of legal age can drink.

Worth noting is that Acadia’s policy has the backing of its students’ union, while the University of Alberta’s has been widely criticized by students.

“Doing a prohibition stance on alcohol – it’s not going to solve anything,” said Matthew Rios, the president of the Acadia Students’ Union. “The policy itself is reflective of what students want to do.”

Last September, a student died at Acadia after a night of excessive drinking in residence. The university asked Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer, to suggest ways to improve its alcohol policy. His report was made public on Thursday. University officials had already seen it and used it to help craft the new measures.

“Any time you put in certain rules on what you can and cannot do, there has to be some element of enforcement and sanctions if people break those rules,” Dr. Strang said. “But I don’t think that should be the focus. You have to have a much more positive kind of focus.”

And if a more severe strategy is needed anywhere, it’s Nova Scotia. Dr. Strang points to a 2004 survey of more than 6,000 Canadian university students conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto that found 47 per cent of Nova Scotia students indulged in “hazardous/harmful drinking,” compared to the national average of 32 per cent. In Ontario, the rate was 33 per cent, and in the Prairies it was 30 per cent.

Since Ontario eliminated grade 13, most first-year students are 18 when they begin university – a year below the drinking age. Most universities switched to dry frosh weeks after 2003, when the last Grade 13 students graduated with the first class of the new system. Nova Scotia’s drinking age is also 19, which means most frosh are under age. In Alberta, the drinking age is 18.

Preventing students who are of age from drinking in public spaces in residences will simply drive them to bars off campus, said Colten Yamagishi, the president of the University of Alberta Students’ Union.

“Who knows if they’re going to make it home safe? Students could go out, over-consume at the bar and come back to residence and be in danger,” he said. Students who drink in small groups in their dorm rooms away from the watchful eyes of residence advisers or campus security are also at risk, he said.

Students at Queen’s University and the University of Guelph raised similar criticisms after those school banned alcohol in residences during frosh week in 2011 and 2010 respectively. In 2010, two Queen’s students died in incidents that may have been alcohol-related.

It’s still not clear how successful those bans have been. Queen’s had 28 incidents related to alcohol during orientation week in 2010. After the ban came into effect last year, that number jumped to 80. Queen’s administrators say it is the result of stronger enforcement. A survey of University of Guelph students suggests the number consuming alcohol during orientation week dropped after the ban was put in place (the university could not provide specific figures).

Mr. Yamagishi said a better approach than a ban would be prohibiting glass bottles in public areas to prevent injuries, holding students responsible for the messes they make, and opening a bar in residence so students could drink in a more controlled environment.

What makes Acadia’s approach stand out among its Canadian counterparts is an acknowledgment that banning alcohol in residence might only displace the problem (or simply drive students to their rooms to drink).

The school has involved the Town of Wolfville in its planning and urged local bar owners to be more careful about how much they serve students.

It has also shifted more power to students: So far, 80 have been trained to be part of a team of volunteers that helps their peers drink responsibly.

Dr. Strang, who studied a range of North American universities’ alcohol strategies, said evidence from the United States indicates that peer-to-peer support is more effective than punitive measures coming from older authority figures or a more passive education approach.

“A complex issue like over-consumption of alcohol needs a multilayered approach,” he said. “Far too often, the approach we’ve taken to problems like this is to say, ‘This simply needs more education.’ It’s kind of like, ‘Just say no to drugs.’”

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