In August 2008, University of North Carolina star tennis player Chris Kearney, 20, was charged with drunken driving in a wreck that hospitalized two fellow students; his blood alcohol level was 0.18 – more than twice the legal limit. One year later, former fraternity president Courtland Benjamin Smith, 21, was shot to death by a police officer during a weekend traffic stop after telling a 911 dispatcher he was drunk and in possession of a gun. Then last month, freshman David Palmer Shannon, 18, died after a late night fall from concrete machinery where alcohol is suspected to be a major contributing factor.

Now, given that the UNC community is not new to binge drinking fatalities, why aren’t we doing more to prevent them?
According to results of the Core Drug and Alcohol Survey administered by the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, 37% of UNC students reported binge drinking (the consumption of 5 or more drinks in one sitting) in 1995. In 2011, that percentage increased to 43.5%, with 64.3% of underage students (younger than 21) also reporting alcohol consumption. Since the typical undergraduate student will not turn 21 until junior year, common sense tells us that the majority of UNC undergraduates are underage minors. As stated by the CDC, 90% of alcohol consumed by minors is in the form of binge drinks.
Therefore we, the University in collaboration with Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities, must band together to eliminate underage drinking before more preventable deaths end in further tragedy. After all, both Kearney and Shannon were under 21.
Why do we need an environmental approach? Well, what we currently have in place is clearly not working. Most strategies on campus target the individual for behavior change. We have been sitting around hoping that the pamphlets oozing with facts on high-risk drinking and the postings for alcohol-free events magically convince students not to binge drink. As a UNC freshman or sophomore though, when it comes time to determine whether or not to partake in underage drinking, the decision-making process is predictable; underage students will drink if they think other underage students are drinking.
Instead of waiting around for underage students to choose not to binge drink, let’s be proactive. First, we must remove minors’ access to alcohol in the community. Second, we must alter the social norms on campus so that we create an environment that is more conducive to individual behavior change.
With regards to removing access to alcohol for minors, local law enforcements should increase the number of regular compliance checks at off-premise establishments that sell and serve alcohol. Students cannot purchase alcohol on campus, so they must be purchasing it off campus. Earlier this year, the Alcohol Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT) of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough police officers cited several off-premise establishments for selling alcohol to minors with underage IDs. Of the nine establishments checked in Carrboro, three were found noncompliant (33%) and willingly sold alcohol to minors. TJ’s Campus Beverage and Carrboro’s Harris Teeter were repeat offenders. There is no excuse for why our community is not at 0% noncompliance for enforcing the law. Increasing the frequency of compliance checks has shown to dramatically decrease noncompliance. Exponentially increasing fines for repeat offenders may further deter noncompliance and provide revenue to cover the costs of the additional compliance checks and the social media campaign to change norms.
In terms of addressing social norms, students will make choices they feel their peers will approve of, even if these decisions are based on skewed perceptions. More recent health assessment results show that students think that other UNC students drink much more than they actually do. For example, 49.7% of respondents thought that the typical UNC student had 5 or more drinks the last time they partied or socialized. In fact, only 28.0% of those who took the health assessment had 5 or more drinks. Students are choosing to drink because they think others are drinking more, not because they actually are. We must launch a social media campaign to publicize that the overwhelming majority of students (72.0% in this case) choose not to binge drink on a given occasion. Only then will we start to alter the campus environment to the point where UNC freshmen and sophomores may feel so inclined to alter drinking habits (even if they do it simply to adhere to the norm).
So, what’s next? Will we change the environment, or will we allow history to repeat itself?
Liz Chen is a first year Master’s student in the Health Behavior Department at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.