Drunk and hungry

Harm reduction approach to alcohol overconsumption focuses on minimizing risk of alcohol abuse, one slice of pizza at a time

CUSG volunteers distribute free food Oct. 31.
Photo by Ali Tadayon

As waves of cloudy-eyed CU students ascended the stairs from the University of Colorado Boulder campus to the front of the Colorado Book Store on Halloween, they were met by a group of individuals, some in suits and some in costumes, serving 10 pizzas from The Sink, two large party subs from Cheba Hut and four cases of bottled water. The group, which included CU Student Government Health Director Sam Golon, his brother Matt Golon, CUSG Director of Communications Lauren Cross and a few other volunteers, hoped to reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning, the chance of unwise alcohol-fueled behavior and the number of hangovers in the morning. In 20 minutes, everything was gone and hordes of sauced students continued on their way with smiles on their faces and food in their bellies.

This is the fourth time this semester that volunteers have handed out free food to intoxicated students on the Hill. CU Community Health is hoping to turn it into a regular program starting in the spring.

This effort and other similar ones are part of CU Community Health’s newly adopted strategy of “harm reduction,” Sam Golon says. Rather than combating the issue of dangerous drinking with an “abstinence approach,” the harm reduction approach focuses on teaching students safe and responsible drinking habits like eating and drinking water between alcoholic beverages and drinking steadily rather than quickly. The efforts are mostly directed towards freshmen and underage students who, according to Sam Golon, are especially susceptible to binge drinking.

“It’s all about student behavior around alcohol, specifically underage students. That’s really our risk group,” Golon says. “The kids aren’t drinking legally; they’re not in a bar where there’s a bartender to cut them off. There are no hospitality guidelines at house parties.” And Golon says house parties are indeed the most common locations of problematic drinking.

In recent years, Boulder City Council has also attempted to address the issue of alcohol abuse within the city. In 2004, city council passed Resolution 960, which brought the issue to light and prompted a review of city beverage licensing policies, code enforcement and zoning and land use regulations. Though city ordinances have been passed to reduce the harms of house parties, council is focusing its current efforts on bars. In October, council passed ordinances prohibiting new liquor license holders that serve alcohol from staying open past 11 p.m. If new businesses want to stay open later than 11 p.m., they cannot serve alcohol at all. Council members argued that tighter restrictions on commercial establishments would reduce noise complaints and overconsumption, although business owners on the Hill, and Boulder residents in an online survey conducted by the city, said house parties are a greater contributor to these problems.

Councilman Ken Wilson, a proponent of the newly adopted ordinances, cites bars and house parties as equally responsible in the overconsumption issue.

“It’s about even,” Wilson says. “If you look at serious crimes like DUIs, assault and rape, half come from bars and half come from parties.”

Wilson’s information comes from a “last drink survey” that the Boulder Police Department conducted over several years, in which officers would ask people charged with these crimes where they had their last drink and write the answer on the ticket. According to Wilson, anecdotal reports from police officers convinced him that these crimes came equally from house parties and bars.

Wilson adds that house parties aren’t as disruptive as they used to be, when parties in Boulder often spilled out onto the street and most of the guests were strangers to the hosts. Wilson credits students and Hill residents for “partying smarter.”

“The parties now tend to be smaller,” Wilson says. “I’ve seen signs in houses, in doors, that say, ‘If you don’t know anyone, then don’t come in.’ They used to be run like open bars. They realize when people they don’t know come, that’s when there’s problems.”

Golon and the CU Community Health office base their approach on different findings.

“The harm reduction approach is based on data from a couple universities showing that unsupervised house parties are more dangerous and people are more likely to binge drink,” Golon says, referring to a national survey in 2002 published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

CUSG released a statement in the form of a public letter before the Oct. 22 city council meeting that expressed their disapproval of the ordinances. Drafted by Golon, the letter outlined CUSG’s concern about the economic well-being of the Hill, accessibility of late-night food options and the fact that students are more at risk of alcohol abuse at unsupervised house parties.

“CUSG’s belief is that by taking away professional alcohol distribution facilities, students are encouraged to participate in the overconsumption of alcohol and drug use,” says Cross, the CUSG communications director.

In the letter, Golon suggests that enacting the ordinances “makes it unfeasible to operate food-service restaurants in the area in late night hours,” which Golon argues would increase the risk of alcohol abuse. He cites the other instances in which CUSG handed out free food and water on the Hill to students on their way to house parties and how students he encountered didn’t think of eating and drinking before and after going to house parties, had there not been food readily available.

In the conclusion of the letter, Golon asks that city council “consider evidence-based policies and strategies that reduce off-premises drinking and its inherent community impacts.” Golon adds that CUSG hopes to maintain “the ongoing conversation” surrounding alcohol enforcement on the Hill, but that “creating policies that only target alcohol-serving establishments does not address the most significant problem: off-premise alcohol consumption that takes place in house parties, fraternities and private residences.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com