Sororities, fraternities and college town bars are waking from their summer slumbers this week as thousands of students arrive in Ithaca, many for the first time, as classes begin at Cornell University and Ithaca College. First-year students will revel in their new city, meeting friends and creating memories, but the unfamiliar environment also means they need to be especially careful when drinking alcohol, health officials say. The legal drinking age in New York State is 21 years old, but underage drinking is a problem that is compounded by binging.
Bangs Ambulance responds to many more calls for unconscious people where alcohol may be involved in the first few weeks of the school year than at normal points throughout the year, said Tim Bangs, president and owner of the ambulance service. Bangs estimated that calls for that type of emergency increase between 25 and 30 percent for the first three weeks of the academic year, attributing the rise to students who are “unfamiliar with what they’re getting involved in.”
Lt. Tom Dunn of the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management at Ithaca College said that his department transports at least two students to the hospital for alcohol or marijuana-related emergencies each week, but added that the number increases in the first few weeks of the school year.
Drinking in a novel environment with new people, or trying new types of alcohol, affects people’s situational tolerance, meaning they may feel more intoxicated than usual even with the same blood alcohol content, said Nancy Reynolds, program director at Ithaca College’s Center for Health Promotion.
“For someone who is coming into college for the first time, basically all of those cues are going to be different,” Reynolds said, adding that new students “should be more aware than usual about what their BAC is going to get to or how many drinks they’re having, because they are going to feel the effects quicker than they usually would.”
Reynolds said that when she hears from students who have had bad experiences with alcohol, their nights often included shots of hard liquor.
“Usually, when shots are involved in the night of drinking, the outcome is not positive,” Reynolds said. “Avoiding hard liquor is a really important harm-reduction technique. Shots can take you down that road that you don’t want to go down.”
Likewise, Cornell encourages students who choose to drink to stick to beer and sip their drinks rather than taking shots or chugging alcohol. The university also tries to reduce any pressure on incoming students to drink, noting that 65.8 percent of first-year students said they were non-drinkers in a survey from fall 2015.
Slightly more than half of first-year Cornell students said they did not consume alcohol in the first 30 days after arriving on campus, said Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Cornell’s Gannett Health Services, referring to a 2014 survey.
Those who do drink, Dittman said, should “stick to the buzz,” eat real meals before they go out, drink water throughout the course of a night and be sure to keep track of their friends.
Both Cornell and Ithaca College have good Samaritan, or medical amnesty, policies that reduce the judicial consequences for students who call for medical attention for someone who has had too much to drink. In addition, Dittman said, New York law prevents people who call 911 for drug or alcohol emergencies from being charged with certain crimes, including underage drinking.
At Cornell, the person who needs medical attention will not be subject to Cornell judicial action for underage drinking, use of drugs or disorderly conduct, but may receive a warning from the Judicial Administration and be required to attend a free, educational evaluation of their drinking habits. The person who calls on behalf of someone in need will not be subject to judicial action for those three offenses and will not necessarily be given a warning or have to attend the evaluation.
“When you’re drinking with a friend and your friend is showing signs of an overdose, if you call for help, you won’t be penalized by your college because we’re really prioritizing health and safety,” Reynolds said.
The amnesty policies have been effective at Ithaca College and at Cornell, Reynolds said, and students are calling for help for themselves or a friend more often and earlier on in the night. “Ultimately, it’s saving lives,” Reynolds said.
Lt. Dunn also lauded the policy and the prioritization of safety over punishment, and encouraged students to not hesitate before calling his department. “We’d rather [students] get the medical help they need rather than face any repercussions,” he said.
Bangs stressed the importance that students call for help and be truthful with medical professionals once they arrive.
“One of the really big issues is ... being truthful, being upfront and coming forward with the information that really helps us in how we treat the patient,” such as if alcohol or drugs are involved, or if the person in distress has cardiac or other health history, Bangs said.
In addition to health and safety reasons, there is also a financial incentive to avoiding alcohol or drinking safely. Many insurance companies reject the medical bill for alcohol overdoses in underage drinkers, Bangs said, leaving the student or the student’s’ family to pay the bill.
To drink safely, students should make a plan for their night before they go out, Reynolds said, and discuss that plan with their friends.
“Part of your plan would be, ‘Am I going to drink or not?’ and decide that ahead of time,” Reynolds said, adding that students should also decide how many drinks they plan to drink.
“When you’re in this new environment and it’s all very exciting, you’re kind of off your game,” she said. “Having a plan is even more important when you’re in a new environment.” §