By Caleb Smith
Preliminary transport numbers for the first five weeks of fall quarter suggest that medical alcohol transports, one indicator of problem drinking, are down compared with previous years.
According to Ralph Castro, the Director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, the number of transports in the first five weeks of fall quarter was 45 percent lower than the preceding five-year average.
The statistics potentially provide ammunition to advocates of the new alcohol policy, which bans hard alcohol from undergraduate parties and restricts hard alcohol to containers smaller than 750 mL.
Castro suggested several factors might be responsible for the early dip in alcohol transport numbers, but he noted the numbers were early.
“Whether it’s the policy, or the dialogue, or the awareness, sometimes that’s enough to get people to think,” Castro said. “It’s really about getting people to think differently.”
Undergraduates resist policy
Despite the new policy, many Stanford students indicated that they do not intend to adjust their behavior to follow the new policy. In a Daily poll of undergraduates, 59.4 percent indicated that they did not intend on following the new policy, while 6.3 percent indicated that they planned on adjusting their activities to follow the new policy and 34.4 percent indicated that they either already did what the rules now required or did not drink at all.
The poll was conducted Oct. 3 through Oct. 7. With 256 responses, the poll has an estimated margin of error of plus or minus seven percent.
While the poll did not include graduate students, the direct effects on graduate student drinking are expected to be smaller than the effects on undergraduates. The only provisions that directly affect graduate students are the ban on serving straight hard alcohol in graduate parties and the ban on serving hard alcohol at undergraduate parties. Many graduate social functions that involve drinking are already targeted exclusively for graduate students. According to Terence Theisen Ph.D. ’20, a co-chair of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), existing policies prohibit the serving of straight alcoholic drinks at GSC funded events.
Castro discusses new alcohol policy
When asked about the possible defiance of undergraduates toward the new alcohol policy suggested by The Daily’s poll, Castro said “buy-in” to the new policy was very important.
“The core tenant of it is really to get people to buy into the goal of why we are doing what we are doing,” Castro said. “The goal is to reduce high-risk drinking and the related consequences. Everyone I talk to agrees that this is the goal. Whether you drink or not, people want less community disruptions, people who drink don’t want to get sick or vomit, don’t want to blackout, don’t want to put themselves in negative or dangerous situations.”
Castro indicated that initial student skepticism was understandable.
“Just like any public health initiative that you do, it’s not popular in the beginning. Change is hard,” he said.
Castro explained that Stanford has been concerned about dangerous hard alcohol use.
“Hard alcohol is implicated in 95 percent of students that have gone to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning,” Castro said. “Of those students, some self-reported having eight drinks on average during that evening that necessitated medical attention. That has been alarming for us… 13 percent of undergraduate drinkers had self-reported they had gotten sick or vomited in the past 30 days, and 12 percent had self-reported they had experienced a blackout or memory loss.”
According to Castro, the President and Provost started their examination of alcohol policy with a hard alcohol ban on the table. However, they quickly rejected this option.
“There isn’t research that shows that banning hard alcohol or dry campuses are any more effective [at stopping alcohol problems],” Castro said.
Castro said that in 2012 an alcohol advisory board considered a variety of policies and programs to help address alcohol issues, and that the group included RAs, PHEs and other students. The second most popular alcohol policy the group came up with was limiting large alcohol containers. Action was not taken at the time because Cardinal Nights and alcohol education programs were still under construction.
Efficacy of container limit
Castro said there is no research showing the efficacy of limits on alcohol container sizes at universities, but he did cite “considerable research” that shows reducing venues that serve alcohol and increasing costs to buy alcohol can lead to declining alcohol use and alcohol related problems.
Castro said that although some retailers in the area sell smaller hard alcohol containers, students would have to know where to find them. Even if students could find smaller alcohol containers, Castro thought the policy could still have an impact from the higher per volume cost found in smaller containers.
The Daily attempted to determine how difficult it would be for a student to find smaller containers of hard alcohol by calling local retailers and asking if they had smaller alcohol containers in stock. On its second call, The Daily was told by CVS’s location in Palo Alto that they stock hard alcohol in containers smaller than 750 mL.
Castro said that smaller containers were also helpful psychologically because drinking a certain amount of alcohol could seem like a smaller amount if it was in a large container.
Feasibility of enforcement
When confronted with concerns that drinking could be driven behind closed doors, Castro said that, because hard alcohol is permitted, there is not a need to hide it. Castro said that if students were found with impermissibly large containers they would be reminded about the policy.
“Our assumption is that [students] will comply when confronted about that,” he said. “Now if a student repeatedly defies the policy, then that’s a conversation about their readiness to be in residence here.”
Castro also addressed findings that many RAs are not planning on enforcing the rules and concerns that inconsistent enforcement may be arbitrary or unfair. Castro said he saw RAs evolve on the hard alcohol rules since the start of the quarter as Stanford continues to educate about the new policy and he is hopeful more will follow.
“I’m hoping that initial wave of ‘what’s going on’ will give way to more openness to understanding why we’re all trying to accomplish [this],” Castro said.
Castro said that Stanford wanted to measure several indicators — including preferences for hard alcohol, frequency of student blackouts, hangovers, vomiting and binge drinking — in a multi-year impact evaluation to evaluate whether the policy was working or not.
Castro added that he was “disheartened” to see the popular linking of Stanford’s new alcohol policy to the Brock Turner sexual assault case.
“This is not a tool to address sexual violence, that’s not what this is about. This is really about a tool to address high-risk drinking,” Castro said.
RAs on the policy
The Daily interviewed two RAs staffing in freshman residences on their reaction to the early transport numbers and to see how the policy was playing out in their dorms.
The RAs the Daily talked to for this article did not believe that the residents were more likely to drink behind closed doors in their dorms, nor did they report pressure from Residential Education to strictly enforce the policy in a policing role. Although it appears the new policy is an active part of alcohol related discussions, the RAs did not assume a police-like role in strictly enforcing the policy.
“As far as attributing [the drop in transports] to the new policy, I don’t agree at all,” Larkin RA Brandon Walker ’18 said.
Walker said he applied alcohol policy similar to how his RAs did when he lived in Larkin freshman year, and thought the students were different between his year and the current one. Walker thought this was a factor in alcohol use issues.
“From what I know of the Class of 2020, they are really good kids,” Walker said. “They are much more responsible than past years I think.”
Walker said that some residents continue to play drinking games but people consume hard alcohol responsibly. Walker also said that the staff focus on safety above all else has led to an environment where residents are open with the staff.
“Their safety is our first interest, we don’t care about anything else. We care that our transport number remains zero. We care that our throw up number remains zero. That is our first priority as staff,” Walker said.
Walker said his dorm also communicates with residents about safe hosting practices. Walker said that residents are supposed to tell the staff before parties happen.
Walker said Larkin has a policy where if someone gets sick drinking, is associated with more than one person who got sick drinking or is frequently hosting alcohol focused events, he or she is pulled aside to discuss safe behaviors.
“This is a community issue, not a personal issue,” Walker said.
Walker said that they do not actively confiscate impermissibly large alcohol containers, but do tell residents that they are not supposed to have such containers.
Another RA in a freshman dorm, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed a mixed attitude about the new policy.
“I think it’s hard as an RA to maintain the kind of relationship we want with our residents while being strict about the details, but I really take to heart the sentiment of the policy and the behavior it suggests,” the RA said.
The RA was cautious about interpreting the early drop in alcohol transports.
“It seems a bit early to count transport numbers as a sure sign of the policy itself, but it’s great [that they are down],” the RA said.
The RA said they were initially nervous about the policy, but thought its application so far has been realistic. The RA also thought the new policy had a role in pointing to acceptable drinking behaviors, making students generally more conscious about hard alcohol consumption
The RA said the staff seeks to tackle high-risk behavior but does not “go around measuring bottles.”
Contact Caleb Smith at caleb17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.