New Year's Eve Safety: Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson

Dec 30, 2010

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Thomas Workman, an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine who works primarily on coalition-based environmental substance abuse prevention in campus-communities, will join Jenna to chat about New Year's Eve safety.

Have a question? Need advice? Tune in and chat with Jenna.

Happy Thursday... I hope  everyone had a fabulous holiday. I just got back into the office after spending a week with my family in Omaha (the same place Lady Gaga spent her Christmas).

As always, I am here for the next hour to answer all of your college-related questions -- especially those about New Year's Eve safety.

I am joined by Tom Workman, an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine who has worked to reduce alcohol and substance abuse on college campuses for more than a decade.

We are excited to hear your questions!

My name is Tom Workman, and I'm delighted to chat with you about safe New Years celebrating.  It IS possible to enjoy the best of the holidays -- including alcohol -- and stay safe.  Let's talk about it!

Your job description includes "coalition-based environmental substance abuse prevention in campus-communities." What exactly does that mean? What are some projects you have worked on recently?

Solving a tough problem like excessive alcohol or other substance use requires many different strategies, including thinking about the environment that surrounds college students and campus visitors.  To do that, it takes the work of everyone connected to the campus-community, from students, faculty, administrators, and staff to the local city council, business owners, and medical professionals.  My work began in Lincoln Nebraska at UNL helping the NU Directions coalition to make all kinds of changes that made it easier for college students to stay safe when legally enjoying alcohol.  Since then, I've worked with campus communities all over the country, including ISU and Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington Normal Illinois and St. Cloud State in St. Cloud Minnesota. I help people organize their coalitions and develop effective strategies that replace unsafe practices with safer ones and refocus college recreation so it isn't centered in intoxication. 

Tom, do holiday celebrations -- like New Year's Eve, St Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras or Halloween -- affect drinking habits of college students?

They certainly do.  We all engage in what we might call "holiday consumption" of everything from food to drink, and this extends to other celebrations such as sports events and birthday celebrations. Much of this has to do with how we're trained in our culture -- we are surrounded by advertising messages that tell us that celebrating well means overindulging, and we've seen endless stories of people who celebrate through intoxication, especially at celebrations of New Years, St. Patrick's day, and Mardi Gras (Halloween and Cinco de Mayo have become a new targets as well).  Notice that we rarely hear the down side of these celebrations in commercial messages -- those are saved for the newscasts.  No one would buy as much alcohol for these celebrations if they knew all the risks!  But this does NOT mean that we can't or shouldn't celebrate these events -- we just need to ignore the message that it is more fun drunk and use some common sense.

I know Four Loko is banned now, but are there places on NYE serving alcoholic whipped cream? And Jenna, have you tried it?

You know, I have no idea if it's served in bars -- or if that's even legal (anyone out there know?). And, confession, while I have blogged about alcoholic whipped cream, I have yet to try it. Actually, the first time I even saw it for sale was at a grocery store in Omaha just before Christmas. The few people I know who have tried it say it's pretty gross, especially by itself.

But along those lines... The Post's Style section just released The List for 2011, which declares Four Loko "out" and alcoholic whipped cream "in."


I'm going out with a group of girlfriends on New Year's Eve. What are some basic precautionary measures we should take to make sure we're safe and we don't do anything dumb?

Step One is to set your expectations and goals.  What do you want out of the night?  What do you hope will occur?  Many folks assume that they need to get drunk in order to have a good time, but that's rarely the true outcome when things get out of hand.  So first, you should set your goal -- what about the night will make it most special?  The next step is to set some limits -- what is appropriate for your weight, time of month (this has a true effect on your blood alcohol concentration), and physical health?  There's a lot of great non-alcoholic "spacers" to try between alcoholic drinks, and planning ahead to use them will help.  Some folks keep stir sticks or botlle caps in their pocket to help them keep count of how much they drink.  Finally, make a pact with your friends about when you may need a "rescue" from an overzealous romantic advance or even from your own behavior if it gets out of hand.  Remember the goal, and work to enjoy what matters most -- great friends, good fun, and a little adventure.

In many campus-communities that I work with, we try to communicate to students about the things that tend to bring police to a party to shut it down.  You'd be amazed how easily a party gets out of hand once word spreads about it over text messages!  The #1 issue is noise -- which gets much, much worse for neighbors when the party moves outside.  Next is vandalism -- the official name for the more innocent stepping through someone's garden or knocking over the mailbox.  Believe it or not, a common complaint called into police is public urination -- when a party guest just decides to relieve themselves wherever they wish.  All these can be avoided by watching the door, controlling who comes in to the party, limiting access to drunk guests (and kicking out underage guests) and even calling the police yourself when unwanted guests come to play.

Speaking of partying and being safe -- My college has a "Free ride home" for students who call in after drinking too much, but it takes forever to get there and isn't very reliable, so nobody I know uses it. Friends at other schools say the exact same thing. Is anybody trying to make this better? How can it be helped?

Yes, this is a common problem.  The limited resources available rarely match the demand.  Many student governments have taken this up as a chief cause, raising money, getting involved with the local transportation authority or cab companies, and even creating new partnerships with insured companies to provide services.  It's a great place for students to put their energies -- and I've seen great solutions at several campuses.

What are the differences and similarities between large 22K student bodies universities, medium size 10K, small 5K, and tiny 2K?

Well... as you might imagine... there are lots and lots of differences. Every college campus has a different personality. No two are the same.

But, with that said, typically you find that huge universities with large student populations are able to offer a lot more majors, classes, research opportunities, study abroad programs, social events, etc. But some students find it's easy to get lost in the crowd.

At a small school you are more likely to know your professors -- and run into them out-and-about on the weekends. And many smaller colleges are banding together to share library resources, host joint job recruitment fairs and let students take classes that might not be offered on their campus at a nearby college.

It really depends on you. And I would be interested to hear what others think....

We'll be driving from DC to Alexandria and back on New Year's Eve, and I'm worried about drunk drivers. It seems like there'd be a lot out. If staying off the roads isn't an option, do you have any tips for not getting killed out there?

I sure wish that we lived in a place and time where this wasn't a worry.  In fact, the reality that you are worried about this is an important way to start a conversation in your state or city.  There's no way to avoid every accident but there are ways to be a bit safer.  Your drive must be fully defensive; in other words, watch your speed, pay extra attention to a driver around you who seems less aware, and look for potential problems.  Using safer roads (sometimes the highway is a better choice than a country road with steep ditches) is best.  Also know that the police are out in full force -- be sure to use roads where you see them at work.

What is the best plan to stay safe on New Years while still enjoying the festivities?

I guess it all comes down to this: Plan ahead.

Unlike going out on a typical Friday night, there will be more people in the bars and on the roads, there will be more opportunities to drink yourself sick at an open bar or house party, and there will be more competition for cabs once parties end.

Plan out how much you want to drink and try to stick with one type beverage -- doing it all and mixing beer with hard liquor with champagne is a recipe for disaster.

When you are out, keep tabs on your group so that no one is stranded or disappears.

Appoint a designated driver. Or take public transportation. Or arrange to have your parents pick you up. Or plan on taking a cab (even if that means waiting for an hour). Or, if possible, plan to end the night somewhere within walking distance.

As long as you know that you will get home safely -- and remember your grand adventure the next day -- you can relax and have fun.

Everybody at my university acts like binge drinking is just this huge, growing epidemic that's going to kill us all, but I've heard that binge drinking is actually decreasing a lot. Especially when compared to my parents' generation, which I hear was insane. Aren't the scare tactics a little overblown sometimes?

Yes, they sure are.  I argue this with my colleagues all the time.  The truth is, we DID need to ring the alarm bell at first, and even now, there are many college administrators who don't fully appreciate the environments they have created for their students.  However, you're right -- the current generation is FAR less interested in alcohol than popular culture might make you think.  We have some of our highest abstinence and moderate drinking levels in decades.  In fact, it is usually the small minority of heavy drinking students that set the tone.  And you can do something about that by speaking up and sharing the stories from the rest of the generation.

I enjoy drinking a few Bloody Marys on New Year's Day to cure my wicked hangover. Does this really work? Or is it some combination of the placebo effect and alcohol?

Well, I'd rather that you didn't need a cure for the night before -- it's amazing how we've sort of accepted hangovers, blackouts, and other negative outcomes from overconsumption as normal when they truly are not -- your body feels that way for a reason, and it's expressing itself clearly to you.  As for the many mythic cures for hangovers (this is one of them), there is more "placebo effect" here than anything -- which is most interesting to me because if your expectations can deliver that powerful of an effect, you may find that you really didn't need all that alcohol to have a good time the night before in the first place -- it's actually all in the mind.  Truly. Give it a try.

Ugh, I have heard this, too, but I would have to think that adding more alcohol to the situation can't make you feel any better.

Michael Fingerhood, a Johns Hopkins associate professor, was recently quoted in a US News article saying there are no proven hangover cures -- but sleep, lots of water and food can help!

A few years ago I went to an open bar for New Year's, and in an attempt to drink my money's worth, got pretty sick. I'm curious, Tom, what you think about these open bar deals and what advice you'd have for of-age college students going to them?

This is one of the environmental strategies that I was talking about.  Many bar owners think that customers -- especially college students -- are cheap and want the most alcohol for the lowest price.   The result is always the same -- lots of intoxicated people doing lots of negative intoxicated behaviors.  These wind up hurting BOTH the customer and the bar owner.  My colleagues and I try to teach bar owners that they actually sell a "social space" and that is the best product available -- ask Barnes and Noble (talk about overpriced beverages!).  Bar owners that get it and change their approach profit well, and the community benefits.  I've seen it work many times.  You play a critical role because YOU are the customer -- expressing what you want and what you'll pay for (and what you won't tolerate) does matter and makes all the difference. 

What few people have you talked to that said alcoholic whipped cream is "pretty gross"?! I just had the stuff over the Christmas holiday, and I can't stop thinking about it! Is this bad boy already drawing the ire of college officials? And a side question, should I be hitting up every liquor store between my work and home tonight in case it goes the way of Four Loko?

Really?!? I think that's the first positive review I have heard. Looks like I need to try it myself and prove/disprove its tastiness/nastiness once and for all...

I haven't heard of any colleges having problems with it, as it seems like more of a novelty thing that's still difficult to find in many stores. But authorities still worry about underage kids being able to obtain it too easily.

Tom, do you have any recommendations for an end-of-the-night routine after someone has had a few drinks? Food? Water? Advil? And if folks are still looking to make dinner plans for NYE, is there any type of food they should avoid before a night out?

Food always helps in alcohol absorption becuase it gives the intestines something else to process, so just about any kind is good.  Many recommend more greasy food like pizza, though there's really no medical evidence to support that. The bigger issue is what your stomach can tolerate, and that has more to do with your alcohol choices.  Holiday celebrations tend to include odd mixed drinks that your body may not be used to, so be a bit cautious and ask what someone is pouring for you.  Tylenol is ABSOLUTELY dangerous to take after drinking -- and is responsible for many serious health problems.  Again, a good plan ahead of time will mean that the evening doesn't need to end in a remedy. 

A friend of mine is driving into DC for New Year's and probably will have a drink or two before heading back out. What's a good rule of thumb for drinks per hour that will keep you below the legal limit for driving?

Your body can process one standard drink an hour, so you'll need that amount of time to see your BAC (Blood alcohol concentration) go down to safe levels.  The trick is to know what a standrard drink size is -- many places serve far more than a single serving.  1 ounce of hard alcohol, 6 ounces of wine, or 8 ounces of beer counts as a single drink.  It's not very much, so you'll need to check carefully to ensure you've only had one or two.

I'm a pretty thrifty drinker, so I usually go straight for the best value -- liquor pitchers. Any idea how to pace yourself on one of these misleading and ,frankly, troubling beverages?

They can be misleading, especially if you don't know what is in them.  We recently did a test of the ones served in one of the campus communities I work with and one had more than 10 shots in it.  So, it's not my favorite choice (and they d0n't make as much money for the bar as owners think they do). If you want to stick with these, the first step is to know what you're drinking -- watch them make it.  Then think about the size of the pitcher -- it may seem like there's plenty of room to dilute all those shots, but wqe found the average glass poured from these had 2- 3 shots per drink in them by volume.  Pace is the next issue -- DO use a seperate glass, and be aware that the entire pitcher, if consumed in 2 hours, may bring to to twice the legal limit.  Pace is everything.  Better yet -- get a bunch of glasses and share it with a group of friends.  That way, you all enjoy but don't have to worry about consequences.

Just wanted to mention that you do not need to be blacked out drunk or even really drunk to get a hangover. Many people can get them depending on the type and quality of alcohol they have had with out consuming ungodly amounts.

Totally. And drinking water before going out, throughout the night and after getting home can help reduce the  headache the next day...

Big drinking nights in my town bring a lot of campus and city cops out to the streets. Which is nice, except that sometimes both types are extremely harsh and seem to relish giving the students a hard time -- a couple of my friends have been ticketed for jaywalking on what I'd consider trumped-up charges,for example. Does the university administration ever work with cops of either type? Do they encourage this incredibly adversarial relationship? Because I'm really not a fan.

University officials usually always know their local police forces very, very well. And many colleges have police of their own who help out near the bars on Thursday nights and weekends.

Up at the University of Maryland this semster, the campus police have cracked down on house parties, drunken behavior and bars that serve underaged students. That's stirred up a lot of anger from many students. The police response: They are just trying to keep students alive and safe.

I'll add my two cents (This is Tom): I think students play a CRITICAL role in keeping the focus of these efforts in the right place.  At UNL, we held forums where police and students talked regularly to discuss the enforcement issue and ensure that it stays focused on the goal.  Some times, those stories of harassment were myths, other times, they were reality.  In all cases, the talking together kept everyone on the right page and avoided big problems. Most students like you support enforcement that is fair, just, and focused in protecting students. I encourage you to start this dialogue at your school.  Don't argue or complain -- just talk about the goals and work together.

My cousin has asked me to help advise her on possible career opportunities through vocational schools (like medical billing, nursing). Are there any good resources to which I can direct her? Are there advising services that might be able to help her? I'm more knowledge about liberal arts options at major universities and relatively clueless about vocational training. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

I am far from being the expert on this -- so many others out there can chime in -- but I would recommend starting with your local community college. Quite often they offer a plethora of vocational training programs at affordable tuition rates. And if they do not have what you are looking for, chances are their counselors and advisers have lots of experience referring current students elsewhere for additional training.

Anyone else have tips?

Is there any truth to the idea that having more than one type of drink will make you sicker? More specifically, will I run into trouble if I start the night drinking gin and flip to whiskey after midnight?

Biologically, all alcohol has the same effect on our nervous system, however not all alcohol is made of the same things or is the same proof.  My guess is that your switch to whiskey causes problems because it has a higher alcohol concentration (called 'proof").  You may also be allergic to the ingredients, which are different than gin or vodka. Many people don't realize that they can be allergic to certain alcohol products.  Finally, it could also be that once the effect of the gin begins, you may be consuming more whiskey than you are aware of, which could be increasing your intoxication beyond what we call the "green zone" or the zone where the positive effects of the alcohol outweigh the negative effects.  Once you've consumed more alcohol than you need, the ratio of good to bad effects flips, researchers tell us, and we have more negative out comes than positive ones (physically and emotionally).  What you may be learning -- and it's important to know -- is your personal limit.  Isn't great that our bodies teach us these things? 

What are your thoughts on Internet colleges like the University of Phoenix and Walden University?

There's lots of talk about internet colleges -- and also internet-only programs at traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. These programs are, for the most part, still pretty new and education experts are still evaluating if they work or not.


But there's no question that online education is gaining popularity. A study released last month found that 29 percent of college students took at least one course online in fall 2009 -- that's up from 10 percent in 2002.

Jenna, what are your plans for NYE?

A big group of some of my best friends in the world are dressing up and going to a bar in Dupont for the night. The plan is to be responsible and get home safely...

Tom, what are you doing?

I am going out to dinner and a movie, and then celebrating with my family and neighbors -- our neighborhood LOVES to set off New Year's fireworks (gotta love Texas!) so I'll head down the street and watch and say "ooh" and "ah" a lot!

Phew -- that was a lot of really great questions. Tom, thanks so much for helping me answer all of them!

I hope everyone has an absolutely wonderful New Year's Eve and a hang-over-free New Year's Day. See you in 2011!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Thomas Workman
Thomas Workman is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, where he serves as the Assistant Director of BCM’s Center for Collaborative and Interactive Technologies. He is the Translation and Production Section Lead of the John M. Eisenberg Center for Clinical Decisions and Communications Science at BCM, working with a team of medical and health communication professionals to produce summary products for AHRQ’s Effective Health Care Program. For the past ten years, Tom has focused his career on coalition-based environmental substance abuse prevention in campus-communities.
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