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New study underlines college students’ desire for more alcohol-free settings and scepticism towards alcohol prevention programmes


The article is written by a researcher, on request of popNAD
Published 5 Jul 2021

College students in this study perceived alcohol as being pervasive to student life, with multiple drivers of alcohol consumption cited both on and off campus. As a result, they were sceptical about the potential impact of college alcohol prevention programmes. The desire and perceived need for more alcohol-free settings were strongly highlighted. The study noted an increasingly diverse student population both in terms of demographics and drinking behaviours.

Our recent study on College students’ perspectives on an alcohol prevention programme and student drinking aimed to give voice to the student population on the key issue of alcohol consumption and prevention. This study was conducted in the context of a multi-component alcohol prevention programme developed in Ireland, known as REACT (Responding to Excessive Alcohol Consumption in Third-level).

The REACT programme aims to reduce hazardous alcohol consumption among college students and consists of a suite of mandatory and optional action points that participating colleges are requested to implement. The programme was launched in 2016 and as part of its evaluation, researchers sought to gain an insight into the perspectives of the target population, acknowledging that the student perspective is a relatively under-researched area in alcohol research. For this study, we conducted eight focus groups at two colleges implementing the REACT programme. Sampling focused on four types of student: young students, mature students, international students, and students who were members of a club or society.

Pervasiveness of alcohol

The study found that students perceived alcohol as being endemic to student life, with some viewing heavy drinking as an almost inevitable rite of passage. Students pointed to the easy availability of alcohol in outlets such as supermarkets. International students, in particular, perceived a strong drinking culture in Ireland, with some expressing surprise that a college campus bar was permitted.

Mature students cited community-level factors such as easy access to nearby pubs and lack of monitoring of underage drinking. This perceived pervasiveness of alcohol, and acknowledgement of the multiple drivers of alcohol consumption, led to a sense of doubt or scepticism regarding the potential impact of alcohol prevention programmes such as REACT. Students noted, for example, the potential displacement effect that may occur if colleges clamped down on alcohol consumption.

The growing phenomenon of pre-drinking (drinking in private settings before going to a public drinking establishment) was also highlighted. While students acknowledged the need for alcohol prevention measures, a few students in the younger cohort suggested that such measures were only necessary for a small minority of students who drank on a daily basis, perceiving problem drinking in terms of those who were alcohol dependent rather than in terms of hazardous or harmful drinking.

Heterogenous nature of drinking

The perceived pervasiveness of alcohol, however, belied a more heterogenous drinking population in this study. Many of the mature students, for instance, reported that they no longer had the inclination or capacity to engage in heavy drinking or to consume alcohol at all. Heavy drinking was also perceived as a transient phase, with college life deemed a time-limited period that students should maximise by having fun and going out drinking. Some students from the clubs/societies group also cited a number of alcohol-free events that had been organised and which reportedly attracted a positive response from students.

Desire for alcohol-free settings

A key finding of this study was students’ desire for more alcohol-free spaces or settings. Providing alcohol-free spaces and accommodation is an optional action point of the REACT programme, and many students viewed this as a standout measure of the programme and one that should be mandatory.

The lack of alternative spaces besides the pub for students to socialise and unwind was strongly highlighted. International students in particular cited a dearth of alcohol-free environments such as late-night coffee houses, skate parks and free sports facilities in Ireland compared with their native country.

On the other hand, some of the younger Irish students highlighted the importance of the downtown pub or campus bar as a setting where they could socialise and connect with their peers, reflecting strong cultural norms that associate alcohol consumption with fostering sociability and a sense of community.

A common denominator for all students, however, was having access to spaces where they could have fun and forget about their worries, underlining the overarching desire for sociability and connection reflected in other youth-related research.

Future considerations

This study highlights a number of important considerations for the REACT programme and other alcohol prevention initiatives of this kind. Firstly, the high density of alcohol outlets and activities off campus reported by students underlines the importance of alcohol prevention efforts in the surrounding community and not just in the college setting for such programmes.

Mapping of licensed premises and alcohol outlets in the surrounding area, for example, could be used to lobby local authorities for better planning. The desire for more alcohol-free spaces as an alternative to alcogenic environments signals the need for a more proactive rather than reactive approach to alcohol policy: rather than solely focusing on reducing alcohol consumption, colleges and policy stakeholders could give greater consideration to how they can engineer environments that enable students to engage and have fun beyond the narrow confines of alcohol-oriented settings.

Finally, the growing diversity of the student population in terms of demographics and drinking behaviours, as noted in this study, highlights the need for more varied student representation and opportunities to inform programmes and policies targeted at this population. This could include greater opportunities for participatory and co-design research approaches, where students act as partners rather than participants in research conducted to inform programme design.

Dr Susan Calnan
Post-doctoral researcher
School of Public Health, University College Cork, Ireland



alcohol prevention, rite of passage, student drinking


iStock/Alessandro Biascioli

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