Michigan college students are binging on booze. Time for more kegs?


Instead of a keg of beer, hosts of college parties often buy a case of vodka, which now comes in a variety of sweet flavors that appeals to young drinkers. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

ANN ARBOR – Keg beer may be part of the solution to decreasing high-risk binge drinking on college campuses.

You read that right.

Campus leaders and police say a 2010 law curtailing keg beer at college parties had the unintended consequence of increasing dangerous drinking, because students began filling their Solo cups with hard alcohol. An effort is underway, led by politicians, retailers and at least one university president, to roll back a law that even its sponsor now says is ineffective.

September is the most dangerous month for college drinking, with a new crop of freshmen arriving on Michigan campuses who by and large don’t know their drinking limits, and students “pre-gaming” before college football.

RELATED: Staying safe on football game day in Michigan (SLIDESHOW)

Bridge chronicled one game day on Michigan campuses in 2015. At least 91 were arrested for under-age drinking on four campuses, and 22 were hospitalized for alcohol-related problems in Ann Arbor alone.

In October 2014, more than 200 people flooded into one Lansing emergency room during the Michigan-Michigan State football game, a level of alcohol poisoning that one ER doctor called a “mass casualty event.”

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel told Bridge last week that high-risk drinking is “one thing that keeps me up at night. I’d say our progress has been slow. It’s been a struggle.”

RELATED: Unconscious students on hospital gurneys: A Game Day diary

The frequency of high-risk drinking has remained stubbornly high, with between 41 percent and 46 percent of University of Michigan undergraduate students reporting at least one experience of high-risk drinking in the past two weeks (defined by as four or more drinks for a female student or five or more drinks for a male student).  That’s significantly higher than the 32 percent national average, according to survey results from the National College Health Assessment

Mark Schlissel

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel says reforms could help college students from “drinking to toxicity.”

“I’m a medical doctor in addition to being a father of four kids who made it through college, and I don’t think it’s really possible to prevent college kids from drinking.” Schlissel said. “I (do) think it is possible to prevent a high fraction of them from drinking to toxicity.”

RELATED: Drinking students ring cash registers: the business of alcohol

Consider these frightening statistics from 2014 student surveys:

  • At the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, almost four out of 10 students who said they drink have done so to the point of blacking out in the previous year
  • At Michigan State University, almost a quarter of students surveyed admitted to having unprotected sex while drunk in 2014 – double the rate of 10 years earlier
  • At Northern Michigan University, one out of four students drank so much at some point in the previous year, that they couldn’t remember where they were or what they did
  • At Central Michigan University, one out of nine freshmen in 2014 said they were the recipients of unwanted sexual contact while drinking; 5 percent said they’d taken advantage of someone sexually while that person was drunk, according to campus newspaper Central Michigan Life.
  • One out of eight women students at U-M said they had been the victim of unwanted sexual contact while they were “too drunk to do anything about it.”

A 2011 state law, required those renting kegs of beer to leave their name and contact information, allowing police to more easily charge the hosts of campus keg parties that served beer to underage drinkers.

RELATED: How one Nebraska school cut dangerous drinking by a third

Keg sales plummeted, but drinking didn’t. Students switched from 10-proof beer to 80-proof vodka, which students could buy by the case without the same identification required for beer.

Schlissel said he would like to see the keg tag law eliminated. “It’s very difficult to drink enough beer to become toxic,” he said. “It isn’t difficult to drink enough vodka to get toxic.”


Keg parties declined sharply after a 2011 law. But that just increased the drinking of hard alcohol like vodka.

Sen. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, is the sponsor of a bill to repeal the keg tag law. The bill passed the Senate 38-0 in May, and is awaiting consideration in the House. Hansen said he’s unaware of any opposition to the bill.

The keg tag law’s original sponsor is Mark Meadows, who was a state representative for East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, which has occasionally appeared on lists of top party schools over the years.  Meadows, now mayor of East Lansing, said in 2015 that the law didn’t appear to have had the positive impact he’d sought.

“It’s a failed experiment,” Hansen said. “It (the repeal) was brought to me by law enforcement, saying, (the keg tag law) doesn’t work. It’s one of those things that looks good on paper but was a dismal failure.”

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Kevin from Waterford
Thu, 09/07/2017 - 9:29am

We teach our children as long as they're under our roof. They learn to walk. They learn language. They become young adults AT HOME.
We push them "out of the nest" with the law having prohibited ANY training regarding alcohol. No toasting at a wedding. No "lawn mowing beer" on a summer day - where we could teach them that a single drink is fine - you don't need to binge to appreciate.
Europeans think we're insane with our Puritan values regarding alcohol. I tend to agree. Training a child happens at home. Having a drinking age of 21 shoved down our throats has led to this epidemic of binge drinking and it's time to return the responsibility of training our kids back to the parents.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 09/07/2017 - 3:37pm

Puritanism has clearly failed. It has failed in regard to the strict prohibition of marijuana, and it failed in the 20th century with the prohibition of alcohol. I agree with Kevin from Waterford that the real answer is for families to teach their children how to be moderate and safe in drinking alcohol so as to prepare them for that aspect of adult life.

As far as beer drinking on campus goes, back when I was growing up Ohio had legalized 3.2 beer for people 18 to 21--and I think that helped. It permitted young people to practice using alcohol, including on campuses. While it was possible to get drunk on beer that had a 3.2% alcohol content, it required a great deal of dedication (and many, many trips to the bathroom!)

I think Michigan might be wise to consider something like that for our young people today.

John S.
Thu, 09/07/2017 - 9:08pm

Practically, if the policy isn't working, dump it. College students should know that binge drinking likely is a form of costly signalling both to same sex peers and to members of the opposite sex. For same sex peers, binge drinking sends a message that I'm a person to be reckoned with. I can hold my liquor. For opposite sex peers, it sends a message that I'm a healthy one. I can consume hard liquor and not pickle my liver. Young men should consider finding other ways to secure a reputation among their peers and to show that they are in good health . How about extramural athletics? It's best for young men to not binge drink. They should not follow the mating strategy of the male Egyptian vulture. The male in that species eats dung laced with parasites. By doing so he gets a yellow crown and thereby displays to females that he can eat more dung than other males. I'm the healthy one!

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 4:31pm

Yes rule of unintended consequences will grow with the legalization of marijuana. From smoking, cookies to beverages as the strength to availability of "pot" expands exponentially.

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 11:04am

But the comparison with alcohol is instructive here. According to the federal survey data, marijuana users are far more likely to use daily than drinkers are to drink daily.
More concerning, though, is the number of people who are getting high all the time — heavy users who smoke on a daily or near-daily basis. The federal data shows that those numbers are increasingly precipitously.

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 6:39am

Law of unintended consequences. Can not wait for legalized weed to join the party.

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 1:30pm

You would think with all the high powered degrees running around at these colleges, they could have figured this out before they started cracking down on this. 18 yo's the first time away from home, loaded with hormones with little supervision are going to test their limits. It is part of growing up and becoming an adult.

Puritans may make it about sex, but it is also about the trash, noise, fights and vandalism. And the fact they are getting old and can't handle it. (the kids are all still the same age, and do mostly the same dumb stuff.)

If you understand it, it isn't a bad place to live. I can shut down a rocking party with an acoustic guitar and like 3 chords within 15 minutes. Play downer music like blues, or folk really badly and they can't stand it. :)

Economically, curbing the drinking has effected the cities, (I was going to call it a community, but it really isn't a community because of the US vs THEM mentality.) Kids go home instead of staying up on the weekends. You have a huge loss of even non drinking business in the shopping districts.

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 8:40am

One problem is that vodka turns out to be half the price of beer in cans - the Legislature should consider how this can be used to alleviate this problem.. Bringing back kegs, with cheaper beer, may help.