This summer I sat on a panel of University students as prospective applicants asked questions about what it is like to be a Wolverine. The panelists eagerly jumped at the opportunities to explain just what it’s like to live in Ann Arbor and proudly claim the title “Leaders and Best.”

But one question caught us off guard. A prospective student asked, “I walk around State Street on football Saturdays and I love the atmosphere, but there is so much drinking everywhere. What is being done about that?” The five of us panelists exchanged glances and managed awkward giggles as we fumbled for a response that could put this applicant’s mind at ease. But no answer came. Instead, the moderator jumped into action, deflecting the question and moving the discussion to something more digestible.

That question lingered with me because we had no answer. Though underage drinking occurs on college campuses across the nation, University officials must not shy away from developing and enforcing a comprehensive plan to combat this problem.

According to collegedrinkingprevention.gov, roughly 850 college students between the ages of 18 and 21 died in 2009 as a result of alcohol-related injuries. That boils down to about two students each day. Additionally, about 300,000 students in that range are injured as a result of alcohol. That is the equivalent of about 822 students – or nearly the entire capacity of East Quad – every single day. Though the public health community acknowledges the inherent dangers of underage drinking, most of society has ignored the statistics. Underage drinking remains a staple of football Saturday on campuses across the nation.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that roughly 83 percent of college students drink. Clearly, this is not a problem only at the University. But perhaps the main factor that inhibits the development of a cohesive plan to combat underage drinking on campus is that some simply don’t see this epidemic as a problem. From my friends in South Quad last year who were caught drinking to the parents of high school friends who sit idly by while underage drinking occurs in their homes, alcohol is often seen simply as a rite of passage for adolescents.

But I don’t shake my finger at underage drinking simply because it’s against the law. If some students must rely on alcohol during every football tailgate and late night mixer to relax, a social crutch is formed and being truly comfortable in any social setting without alcohol becomes less likely. Surgeon General Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu sumed it up best in his 2007 Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. He said, “Adolescent alcohol use is not an acceptable rite of passage but a serious threat to adolescent development and health.”

Based on the NIAAA’s calculations, roughly 21,000 of Michigan’s 26,208 undergraduates drink alcohol. According to a statement released by the Department of Public Safety, “Beginning September 2 through September 9, 2010, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office and the Saline Police Department, in partnership with the University of Michigan Department of Public Safety, will be on the lookout for underage drinkers.” According to the press release, “Research and experience confirm strong enforcement helps to reduce underage drinking…” Cracking down on underage drinking will combat, “alcohol poisoning, impaired driving and suicide,” the statement said. On the first night of the increased enforcement alone, 48 tickets were issued and two arrests were made.

This is tremendous progress for local law enforcement that clearly recognizes the inherent dangers of underage drinking. But I can’t help but wonder why this “crackdown” warranted a press release. Is it news that a law enforcement agency is enforcing the law? Perhaps if the strict enforcement of the legal drinking age didn’t happen only seven days out of every school year, this would seem like less of a headline. One can’t help but wonder if local law enforcement has a plan to combat this ubiquitous problem for the remainder of the year.

I remember when I attended Campus Day my senior year of high school. Eager to tour the Diag and explore the ivy-covered buildings, I was instead greeted with a raucous game of volleyball on State Street and the bitter smell of stale alcohol. The University is first and foremost an institution of higher learning with a long history of tackling some of the world’s toughest problems. Before we are to meet the challenges that face the international community, we must develop a policy to combat this life-threatening problem at home. However, if we choose to sit idly by, we must be prepared to defend this response to every incoming student who simply wants a world-class education.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.

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