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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

The BC Campus

Where futures begin? Or a site for risky substance use?

Tim Dyck, PhD and Nicole Pankratz, BA (Hon.)

Reprinted from the "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 4 (3), pp. 6-7

for many people, “campus life” conjures up images of post-secondary students going wild with alcohol and other drugs. Some of these images come from students themselves, reliving—and perhaps embellishing—their campus escapades. Other images come from movies and television.

But are campuses really as ‘wet’ and drug friendly as we’re led to believe? Or do the students who binge on booze and do other drugs represent a minority among a relatively sober crowd?

Campus Stats 101

Judging from the results of two surveys involving young adults—Canadian Campus Survey 2004 (CCS) and Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS)—there is nothing particularly “wild” going on at BC colleges and universities. Substance use among post-secondary students is comparable to substance use among non-students of the same age (roughly, 19 to 24). That said, young adults have the highest rates and riskiest patterns of substance use of all age groups. So, while “campus life” may not be unique to the campus environment, there are still reasons to be concerned about how some students are spending their time while in college or university.1-2

Drugs: what’s hot, what’s not

The Canadian Campus Survey,1 which includes responses from 693 students on six BC campuses, is the most recent, comprehensive look at student substance use behaviours. The study reveals that alcohol is by far the most popular drug among post-secondary students in BC. Close to 79% of survey respondents report drinking alcohol in the last year (70.6% in the prior month).

Regarding tobacco, less than 10% of post-secondary students in BC say they are current smokers. However, over 30% of students report having used cannabis (marijuana and hashish) in the last year (12.9% in the last month).

As for cocaine, speed, ecstasy and a range of other illegal drugs, about 10% of students say they have used these substances in the past year (3.3% in the last month).

Gender equality?

When it comes to gender differences, more females than males report smoking cigarettes (13% versus 12%). But many more males than females use marijuana—34.5% of males used marijuana in the last year (almost 20% in the last month), compared to 30.1% of females (14.2% in the last month). Regarding other illegal drugs, male students report slightly higher rates of use.

When and where’s the party?

Almost 75% of student drinking takes place on weekends. While most often drinking occurs off campus (85.6%), heavy frequent drinking tends to be most popular among students who reside on campus. (In the CCS, heavy drinking means having five drinks3 or more at a sitting, and frequent means drinking weekly or more often.) Close to one quarter of students who live on campus drink to excess.

Among students who live off campus, 16.8% of those living on their own drink a lot and often, while 12% of those living with family members are frequent heavy drinkers.

Students drink in a wide range of environments both on and off campus—in dormitories and other forms of student housing, at friends’ homes and in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, among other places. While informal get-togethers are the most common occasions, the heaviest drinking takes place at parties. Drinkers consume an average of six drinks each at party events.

Causes for concern

Substance use is taking its toll on student health, well-being and academic performance.

Episodic heavy drinking (repeatedly drinking a great deal in one sitting) is a serious concern. It’s linked to a broad range of acute or short-term harms, including falls, accidents, fist fights and sexual assault.

Among post-secondary students who had used alcohol within the past month:

  • nearly 20% report drinking heavily (usually 5+ drinks) at least once a week

  • 33% report heavy drinking once every two weeks or more often

  • almost 14%, mostly males, report consuming eight or more drinks in one sitting, once every two weeks or more often

An unintended education: what some BC students are learning at school

Lesson 1: My drinking can cause me harm.
Given the above-noted rates of excessive drinking, it’s not surprising that 39% of students report experiencing one or more harms related to drinking. These are harms identified by using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a screening tool for alcohol-related problems.4 Harms incurred from using alcohol in the past year include:

  • guilt or remorse about drinking (after having consumed a drink)

  • memory loss

  • an injury in connection with consumption

  • concern over others’ worry in regard to one’s drinking.

  • On a similarly negative note, just under 30% of students report one or more of the AUDIT’s three symptoms for dependence:

  • being unable to stop drinking

  • needing a first drink in the morning

  • failing to perform normal activities

Lesson 2: Other students’ drinking can cause me harm.
Students are often affected by the hazardous drinking of others:

  • 30.4% (mostly women) say their study or sleep has been interrupted

  • 13.7% say they have been subjected to a serious argument or quarrel

  • 5.8 % report having been being physically assaulted

  • 7.4% (much more so women) say they have been sexually harassed

A national trend

BC is not alone in its patterns of substance use among the post-secondary crowd. Indeed, students across the country seem to have similar substance issues, particularly in regard to alcohol. According to the CCS, excessive alcohol use by students in every region of Canada has resulted in these harms:

  • more than half have had a hangover, with nearly 19% having missed a class because of it

  • just over 12% have skipped a class because they were drinking

  • around 25% have experienced alcohol-related regrets and memory loss

  • nearly 7% have been hurt or injured

  • just over 14% have had unplanned sexual relations

  • 6% have had unsafe sex

  • about 7% have driven a vehicle while intoxicated, and almost 4% have drunk while driving

Regarding dependence, just over 13% of students say they need a lot more alcohol to become drunk than they used to need. And 2.5% of Canadian students say they have tried to cut down their drinking, but could not.

What BC students think about the alcohol scene

Student views are mixed regarding alcohol use on campus. They are more likely to favour fewer control measures to reduce consumption. Yet a majority also supports stronger security and enforcement against unauthorized drinking.

Only a minority (14%) say alcohol is problematic on their campus. Even so, over 15% of students not already benefiting from alcohol-free university housing have expressed a preference for living in accommodations where alcohol is not permitted. (To date, just under 4% of students live in alcohol-free housing.)

Frequent drinkers feel the campus environment lends itself to alcohol use. Frequent drinkers—more so than the student body in general—tend to have exaggerated ideas about how many students both drink and support the use of alcohol on campus. They mistakenly assume “everyone” drinks, that many drink regularly and that their own pattern is quite accepted.

Heavy drinkers have the impression that alcohol policies on their campuses are not upheld. Examples of such policies include regulations around:

  • where and when alcohol can be consumed

  • advertising and pricing on campus

  • spot checks by campus security watching for public intoxication

One disturbing yet important finding to come of out of the CCS is that, by and large, both male and female perceptions of safe alcohol intake levels exceed low-risk guidelines outlined by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.5 Perhaps, then, the first step in helping to reduce alcohol-related harms on campus is to ensure students, staff and administrators understand more about alcohol. They need to know how much is too much on one occasion, and how often is too often to drink in one week.6

About the authors

Tim is a Research Associate at the Communication and Resource Unit of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC. His work focuses on promotion of low-risk drinking guidelines, education, screening and brief intervention for risky alcohol consumption, especially in a campus context.

Nicole is the Publications Officer at the Communication and Resource Unit of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

  1. Adlaf, E.M., Demers, A. & Gliksman, L. (Eds.). (2005). Canadian Campus Survey 2004. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

  2. Adlaf, E.M., Begin, P. & Sawka, E. (Eds.). (2005). Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A national survey of Canadians’ use of alcohol and other drugs: Prevalence of use and related harms: Detailed report. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

  3. The Canadian campus survey questionnaire (p.3) basically refers to an alcoholic drink as one 341 ml (12 oz.) bottle of beer/cooler, or one 150 ml (5 oz.) glass of wine, or one mixed drink of 45 ml (1.5 oz.) of spirits. Without spelling out specific concentrations (5% for beer, 12% for wine, 40% for spirits), it essentially defines what has been fixed as a Standard Drink (SD) for Canada: a beverage containing 13.6 grams (17.2 ml/0.6 oz.) of pure alcohol.

  4. Saunders, J.B., Aasland, O.G., Babor, T.F. et al. (1993). Development of the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT): WHO collaborative project on early detection of persons with harmful alcohol consumption. II. Addiction, 88(6), 791-804.

  5. Centre for Addictions Research of BC. (2005). Low-risk drinking guidelines.

  6. CARBC provides an online, short self-test for risky drinking at, as well as access to their own publications and other information on substance use at


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