News and Views

UCC alcohol research signals last call

Pictured: UCC researcher and PhD candidate Martin Davoren (Image by Tomas Tyner, UCC)

Pictured: UCC researcher and PhD candidate Martin Davoren (Image by Tomas Tyner, UCC)

  • 30 Jan 2015

A UCC study on hazardous alcohol consumption and third-level students published in the BMJ Open medical journal today calls for further public policy measures as a matter of urgency.

The study complements UCC’s significant existing efforts around tackling alcohol-related harm as it seeks to counter the short and long term risks to student health. It also highlights the cultural nature of the issue, impacting across Irish society.

The cross-sectional class-room based study, exploring hazardous alcohol consumption and related adverse consequences with a particular interest in gender differences, was led by UCC researcher and PhD candidate Martin Davoren, originally from North Clare, with input from UCC colleagues Dr Frances Shiely and Professor Ivan Perry of UCC’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and Dr Michael Byrne, Head of UCC’s Student Health Department.

The study signals another round in the national debate on Ireland’s drinking culture and will help to further inform the existing efforts of UCC, the UCC Students’ Union and other stakeholders such as the Gardaí and local residents’ associations in combating alcohol-related harm – efforts that have seen UCC become a national leader on an issue which impacts across the whole of Irish society, winning the Best Public Health Initiative category and the prestigious overall award, An Duais Mhór for its work around alcohol at the Irish Healthcare Awards in 2013.

The UCC-based study, which used a rigorous sampling strategy, found a high prevalence of hazardous alcohol consumption among the 2,275 undergraduates who responded compared to the general population. Noteworthy is the narrowing of the gender gap with patterns of hazardous alcohol consumption now similar in men and women. It had an overall response rate of 51%, with an in-class response rate of 84%, figures comparable to those achieved in other major international studies on student alcohol consumption.

A key finding was that 66.4% of students responding reported hazardous alcohol consumption, 65.2% for men and 67.3% for women. At the higher end of the scale, approximately 17% of men and 5% of women were consuming more than six units of alcohol at least 4 times per week, and in some cases on a daily basis.

Hazardous alcohol consumption drastically increased the possibility of adverse consequences, including missing days from university, and so affecting academic performance. The pattern and frequency of adverse consequences of alcohol consumption was broadly similar in men and women, though men were more likely to report getting into a fight or to have a ‘one-night stand’ than women.

Commenting on the motivation behind the study, lead author Martin Davoren explains it was in part fuelled by a need for reliable data on patterns of alcohol consumption in the student population, given recent national and international research indicated a narrowing gender gap in this population. He said:

“A decade ago the College Lifestyle and Attitudinal National Survey noted males were drinking more than their female counterparts. What we are now seeing is women drinking as much as men. This finding is yet another signpost that our relationship with alcohol as a nation is unwholesome and detrimental to health. It impacts us all and these findings should not be seen as merely a ‘young person’, ‘student’ or ‘UCC’ issue. Currently the Irish state is at a decision point with regard to policies on the promotion and marketing of alcohol. This study highlights the need for effective public policy measures such as a minimum unit price for alcohol and a full ban on sports sponsorship.”

Mark Stanton, UCC Students’ Union President commented: “The results of this study should be seen as a call to action nationally - it is important to remember this isn't just an issue for UCC students, or students in general. A national conversation needs to take place and students need to be at the heart of the discussion, not the topic of it. Over the last few years, students' unions in UCC, UCC Student Health Centre and the UCC Health Matters initiative have done fantastic work in highlighting and mitigating the harmful effects of dangerous drinking, but this needs to happen nationally if we're going to turn a corner.” 

(Audio recorded courtesy of UCC98.3FM)

Dr Michael Byrne, Head of UCC’s Student Health Department said: “This latest research confirms that this is not a time for complacency in tackling the issue of alcohol-related harm in Ireland. The hazardous consequences of concerning levels of alcohol consumption are a threat to the success of our students and to our society in general. The response to this issue needs to be informed by the best available evidence and involve students as well as practitioners and experts. It is heartening to see the leadership position adopted by the USI on this issue, and in particular their collaboration with Alcohol Action Ireland to develop alcohol campaigns and material that is independent of the alcohol industry.”

UCC's comprehensive alcohol action plan identifies five key strategy areas with 20 specific action points, including strategies to inform and educate the students, but crucially also challenges the students to consider their own alcohol intake and promotes actions that can lead to a behavioural change.

The plan also provides for the provision of training to front-line support and academic staff on the adverse consequences of harmful alcohol consumption.

Over the past five years, over 13,000 UCC students have completed an online alcohol educational and behavioural change module called e-PUB UCC. Most recently, UCC saw applications for its alcohol-free accommodation increase, as the programme expanded to become ‘Wellbeing housing’.

More details on the above and related initiatives can be found at http://www.ucc.ie/en/news/fullstory-496025-en.html.

Dr Ian Pickup, Head of Student Experience at UCC, said: “The issue of alcohol related harm is not new, and not confined to students. The threat that alcohol poses to student success and the wider student experience in Irish colleges and universities is taken very seriously indeed by the student leadership as well as the services that support our students. It is vital that the wider issues of easy availability and widespread marketing of alcohol be addressed, if Ireland wishes to reduce the level of alcohol-related harm in society. I would also like to acknowledge the work done by UCC Health Matters in their positive approach to health promotion at UCC and look forward to UCC Health Matters continuing to build on their efforts to date.”

Professor Ivan Perry of UCC’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health commented: “Given these findings, which are consistent with recent national survey data on alcohol misuse in the general population, the case for a complete ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports events and the introduction of minimum unit pricing is now compelling on health and economic grounds.”

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