Outlook: A Troublesome Brew

Amid the underage drinking problem, why sell alcohol during campus sporting events?

By David Jernigan

Graphic by A. Richard Allen

Excessive alcohol use poses significant challenges to student health and safety on college campuses. In high-income countries, alcohol is the leading cause of death and disability for young people ages 15-24 years old. In the U.S., alcohol use contributes to more than 1,800 student deaths, 700,000 assaults, and 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape on college campuses, according to U.S. government estimates. Annually, roughly 1 in 4 students in the U.S. reports academic consequences from drinking.

Studies consistently find an association between exposure to alcohol marketing and youth drinking behavior. Yet a growing number of colleges and universities are introducing alcohol sales and promotions to university sporting events while others are marketing institution-branded alcoholic products. The goal of these sales is to raise revenue, but at what cost?

More Alcohol, More Problems

Alcohol sales at college sporting events may increase risk of adolescent drinking, running counter to goals of protecting the health of students while providing few benefits to the institution.

A 2015 economic study found that adding beer sales was unlikely to increase either attendance at or revenue from university sporting events. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism specifically recommends prohibiting alcohol use and sales at campus sporting events.

The case for a ban is compelling. One study of 26 Division 1A schools found that assaults increased by 9 percent, vandalism by 18 percent, and DUIs by 13 percent on the days games were played at home; no such increase occurred on away-game days. Making alcohol more accessible appears to make things worse. The largest study to date on the impact of alcohol sales at college sporting events found that institutions that permit tailgating (which can lead to easier availability) are significantly more likely to have more students drinking at sporting events. In contrast, restrictions on tailgating at one major university led to significantly fewer severely intoxicated spectators.

Another study found more than five times as many arrests—for offenses such as unlawful possession of alcohol or drugs, use of false IDs, public intoxication, assault and battery, and resisting arrest—on college game days than on randomly selected "control" days such as football-season Saturdays with no games scheduled. Arrests were also more frequent on game days than on traditional drinking holidays such as St. Patrick's Day and the night before Thanksgiving.

Institutions should study the lessons offered by the University of Colorado Boulder, which banned alcohol sales and consumption at its stadium in 1996. Although limited alcohol sales have resumed after nearly two decades, an examination found that two years after the ban, arrests had fallen by 45 percent, student referrals to judicial affairs by 89 percent, and alcohol-related ejections by 50 percent. The study found no relationship between patron opinions of the ban and season ticket renewals.

While the Colorado study is the only peer-reviewed evaluation available, numerous studies on alcohol availability and consumption show that the easier alcohol is to get, the more people drink, and the more they experience and cause alcohol-related problems. Excessive drinking is an issue for of-age as well as underage college students. There is no reason beyond wishful thinking to expect that increased availability will decrease heavy drinking among college students.

Address the Existing Drug Problem

I have spent close to three decades researching and implementing public health strategies to reduce alcohol problems. Universities and colleges considering making alcohol available at sporting events should know that this will likely exacerbate rather than alleviate excessive drinking and related harms. Similarly, permitting co-branding of college sports merchandise with alcohol brands may influence adolescent drinking. Ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise is a predictor of adolescent drinking.

Universities and colleges are revered institutions trusted not only to educate but also to protect the safety and health of the next generation of leaders. Despite changes in marijuana legality and availability and a growing opioid epidemic, alcohol continues to be the No. 1 drug used by young people in the U.S. Given the high toll already exacted by excessive alcohol use, keeping alcohol out of college sporting events should be part of any comprehensive, evidence-based strategy to protect the health and well-being of college and university students.


About the Author

David Jernigan is the director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland.