City Paper heads to local bars with a notebook and a breathalyzer to talk to college students about binge-drinking | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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City Paper heads to local bars with a notebook and a breathalyzer to talk to college students about binge-drinking

“I think there’s a culture of drinking in college no matter where you go.”

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“During first-year orientation (held before the first week of classes), Carlow enlists speakers from the organization CampuSpeak to talk to students about the dangers of alcohol and drug use,” writes Wilson. “The resident assistants in the residence halls address the topic of alcohol and drug use and abuse [and other topics] during their monthly meetings with the students under their supervision.”

But Carlow and other universities are trying to educate students further by providing programs that are more engaging than sitting in a lecture hall, learning alarming statistics about drug and alcohol abuse that don’t appear to actually frighten anyone.

“In October each year — in conjunction with the university’s police department — students attend a seminar where there is a go-kart and course set up,” Wilson wrote. “The students are allowed to ride the go-kart with and without goggles that simulate how it feels to be impaired by drugs and alcohol. This gives them a firsthand appreciation for how drugs and alcohol may impair their senses and motor skills.”

And Keith Paylo, vice president of student affairs for Point Park University, says his university has also developed new and fun ways to engage students.

“Our first big event of the year — we’ve had 400 students at it — called Pioneer Pub, is meant to start the year off with alcohol education. It’s about making sure students, especially new freshmen, understand how much you can drink — how many beers or shots does it take to get drunk — because they’ve never been exposed to that.”

Paylo says it’s important for students to receive a well-rounded education that includes developing social skills and understanding the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.

“Our younger generation seems to be exposed to a lot of things in high school, but the freedom’s not there — mom and dad are still around,” says Paylo. “So like any other college or university when the parental guidance is away, we feel an obligation to explain to students there’s a responsible way to do this and an irresponsible way. Education is also outside of the classroom, and that’s key to us.”

Even for those under the legal drinking age, Paylo says a “just say no” approach isn’t realistic because it leaves students at risk. 

“They don’t understand the dangers of binge-drinking,” Paylo says. “We can’t just say we know students are going to drink underage. So our goal is, if it’s going to happen, at least we should educate students on the best way to do it. It’s not that we say they should. We do remind them that it’s illegal to do that. But it’s irresponsible to believe that’s going to stop students.”

At the University of Pittsburgh, college administrators are using technology to ensure that students drink responsibly. A team at Pitt, lead by Dr. Brian Suffoletto, recently developed PantherTRAC, a text-message-based intervention system.

“This is the second year that we are using the text-messaging service to try to reduce binge-drinking,” Joe Miksch, Pitt’s interim director of university news, wrote in an email to CP. “Our ‘PantherTRAC’ program is an evidence-based, text-messaging program intended to [bolster] other methods of alcohol intervention. … It is a computer program that periodically sends queries and support messages through mobile-phone texts to the user (our students).”

These messages include not just education about the dangers of drinking, but also motivational statements and behavioral tools to promote low-risk drinking and help students handle peer pressure. 

“PantherTRAC helps students self-monitor their drinking intentions and behaviors, assists in goal-setting that strives for lower risk drinking and increases achievement of better drinking choices,” Miksch wrote. “It is completely confidential, which contributes to the 89 percent completion rate by our students. Initial trials were very convincing; reports of binge drinking decreased to less than 10 percent of sanctioned participants.”

Miksch says that because of the success of initial trials, the program was introduced to all incoming freshmen this fall. 

And while the programs are a good start, making a dent in the number of students drinking heavily will continue to be an uphill battle. On the night CP was at Peter’s Pub, for instance, there were as many parents and alumni drinking as students. The scene the next day, during tailgate parties at Heinz Field, was similar. And the reason is obvious, according to Michael K., the student who blew the .37 on the AlcoMate: “People drink because it’s a drug and it makes you feel good."


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