A new study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has found that a college intervention that includes the availability and enforcement of an alcohol policy reduces the consequences of college drinking. Called the Study to Prevent Alcohol Related Consequences (SPARC), the study measured how campus-community coalitions reduce the index items of college drinking: for example, car accidents, DUIs/DWIs, medical treatment as a result of drinking, sexual assaults and physical fights.

The benefits of the intervention went beyond reducing drinking by drinkers but helped people who didn’t drink as well, because of reduced accidents, according to a July 23 press release from NIAAA. “This study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that strategic changes to the environment on campus and in the surrounding community can have an impact on high-risk drinking and its consequences among college students,” said Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., acting director of NIAAA.

“It is particularly noteworthy that this combined campus/community effort not only reduced harms personally experienced by the drinker, but also harms resulting from others’ alcohol misuse,” said Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at NIAAA.

The SPARC intervention did not change the amount of alcohol students consumed. The researchers speculated that the students may have simply been more aware of law enforcement and disciplinary penalties for drinking. Still, they noted that the approach did reduce negative consequences of drinking.

The study, by Mark Wolfson, Ph.D., and colleagues, was published online July 23 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Wolfson, professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, examined what is referred to as the community organizing approach. “We realized that high-risk drinking is not just a campus problem, and it’s not just a community problem,” said Wolfson. “You have to look at the entire ecosystem.”

Five universities in North Carolina assembled coalitions of campus administrators, faculty and staff, students, and community members, and developed a strategic plan. Each campus had its own strategies to address alcohol availability, but all included restricting alcohol to underage or intoxicated students, improving coordination between campus and community police, and setting consistent disciplinary action for violations.

These five campuses were then compared to five similar universities in the state that didn’t have the intervention.

The investigators surveyed students about drinking and related consequences for three years. They found small but statistically significant decreases in two areas: (1) severe consequences experienced by the drinker (decrease from 18 to 16 percent) and (2) alcohol-related injuries the drinker caused to others (decrease from 4 percent to 2 percent). There were no statistical decreases at the comparison universities. While the reductions are modest, they transfer to helping hundreds of students, the researchers said, estimating that implementing SPARC on a campus of 11,000 students will result in 228 fewer students experiencing a severe consequence of drinking and 107 fewer students injuring others due to their drinking, per year.

“This is the basic principle of public health — small changes at the population level can translate into significant improvements in the health of a population,” Wolfson said.