A Community Effort – Creating conditions for a safer alcohol culture

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Guest blog by Cathy Edwards, Chair of the Greater Kingston Area Safe & Sober Community Alliance Post-Secondary Work Group

Community partners are working together to mitigate the impact of excessive drinking this coming weekend in an effort to keep both students and community members safe. The traditional celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has become synonymous with parades, parties, and all things green. A major part of the celebration is the drinking culture, with social norms and traditions around St. Patrick’s Day affecting how alcohol is viewed and how it is consumed.

While traditions can play a huge role in how, when, and why people drink, what else influences the culture of alcohol use in a community? There are a number of environmental conditions that play a role including how readily available and accessible alcohol is, alcohol advertising and promotion, campus and local alcohol policies, and enforcement of alcohol laws.

Research demonstrates the value and need to bring campuses and communities together to change the environmental conditions that promote heavy alcohol consumption.[1],[2] As a member of the national Post Secondary Education Partnership on Alcohol Harms (PEP-AH), Queen’s University has expressed its commitment to implementing evidence-based actions to reduce alcohol-related harms, and recognizes that helping shape the off-campus environment in which students live, work and play is an essential component of a multi-faceted strategy to support student health and safety.

So, what does the off-campus environment look like? The targeted marketing and promotion of alcohol, including drink specials to students, is common practice. And with more than half of all licensed establishments in the City of Kingston clustered within 1.5 km or a 15-minute walk of Queen’s University campus, the near-campus environment is one in which alcohol is easily accessible and available. We know that the density of alcohol outlets plays a major role in over consumption, and related problems.[3]

In addition to heightened enforcement, offering training to bars to help create safer drinking environments, and educating students and the public around safe drinking practices, what else can be done to minimize the impact alcohol has on our community? Are we ready to consider and act on the role cheap drink specials, targeted marketing and alcohol outlet density are having on consumption?

Whether it is public intoxication, alcohol poisoning, vandalism, violence, sexual assault, or impaired driving, preventing alcohol-related harms requires a community effort. We must continue to work together to look at better ways to address community alcohol problems.

In the months since Homecoming-related street parties impacted near-campus neighbourhoods and local emergency rooms, community partners including Queen’s, the City, health and emergency services have been working together to examine a plethora of initiatives intended to provide additional enforcement tools and incentives to curb out-of-control parties. The City’s new nuisance-party bylaw is one such tool; it promises to provide stiff fines to those hosting parties that put themselves or others at risk. The partners continue to examine other tools and practices as part of efforts to dissuade harmful or dangerous behaviours.

A key element in the equation is how we can create conditions that support more positive and responsible choices about alcohol. It is crucial that as a community we engage and empower those who choose to drink to value safe drinking. At the same time, it is important for us to look at the broader environment and engage the community if we are ever going to change the drinking culture.

The Safe & Sober Community Alliance Post-Secondary Work Group partners include Queen’s University, St Lawrence College, CFB Kingston, Addictions & Mental Health Services-KFLA, Sexual Assault Centre Kingston, Kingston: Partners for a Safe Community, Kingston General Hospital, KFL&A Public Health, Alcohol & Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), and Kingston Police.

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[1] Wechsler, Henry and Nelson, Toben F., Harvard School of Public Health. “What We Have Learned from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study: Focusing Attention on College Student Alcohol Consumption and the Environmental Conditions that Promote It”, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, July 2008.  http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas/What-We-Learned-08.pdf

[2] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/colleges-communities-can-reduce-alcohol-related-harm-students  July 2012 accessed on August 14, 2017.

[3] Ontario Public Health Association. Issue Series: Alcohol Outlet Density; June 2017.

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