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Campus Life

Taking Beer off the Board

SPH group helps stop sale of drinking games

William DeJong, an SPH professor of social and behavioral sciences, says that drinking games contribute to the idea that dangerous binge drinking “is the norm.” Photo courtesy of SPH

Whether you call it beer pong or Beirut, the rules of the game are simple: players score by tossing Ping-Pong balls into cups of alcohol, and with each score their opponents must drain the cup dry.

It’s a part of American college culture that worries public health officials and contributes to 1,700 alcohol-related deaths among students each year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Binge drinking, both at BU and at other colleges and universities, is definitely a public health issue,” says Beth Grampetro, health and wellness educator at the Office of Residence Life. “Many games encourage students to drink as much as possible as quickly as possible, which puts them at very high risk for alcohol poisoning.”
A program at BU’s School of Public Health recently succeeded on a national scale in tackling one aspect of binge drinking.

In December and January, Join Together, an SPH alcohol and drug policy advocacy group established in 1991, successfully launched a nationwide effort to convince national chains Kohl’s, Target, and Linens ’n Things to stop selling drinking games.  

The games included Shots and Ladders, a tweaked version of the board game Chutes and Ladders, Drinko, a takeoff of the television game show Plinko, and of course, Beer Pong. All three retailers pulled the products from their shelves after receiving thousands of protest letters, an effort coordinated by Join Together and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America.

“These games are pretty shameless,” says Eric Helmuth, Join Together’s director of technology and online communications. “They’re just brash, commercialized boxed versions of games that exist and are popular with college students. They exist to encourage unsafe, heavy levels of alcohol consumption.”

William DeJong, an SPH professor of social and behavioral sciences, agrees that boxed versions of drinking games can only exacerbate binge drinking.

“First, they can cause students to drink more heavily, and at a quicker pace, even when they might have planned to drink less,” he says. “Second, drinking games contribute to perceptions that heavy or even out-of-control drinking is the norm, when that is simply not the case.”

“The egregious thing about these games is that they promote heavy drinking as a competition,” Helmuth adds. “That’s how people die!”
Join Together learned in mid-December that big-box stores were selling the games and asked 20,000 activists to join a letter-writing campaign.

Within three days, 2,800 letters poured into Kohl’s headquarters, and the company agreed to remove the games. Two weeks and an additional 2,100 letters later, Target pulled the games from its stores and its Web site. A third retailer, Linens ’n Things, received 1,600 letters within 48 hours. 

Anara Guard, of Newton, was one of those who wrote. “I shop at Linens ’n Things regularly, and turned to the store when each of my sons was heading off to college,” she wrote. “I was appalled to learn that Linens ’n Things is selling games in stores and online that encourage binge drinking. . . . These games have a single purpose: helping people get really drunk, really fast.” Linens ’n Things responded by removing all its games by January 12.

With victories involving three nationwide retailers, Join Together’s efforts made headlines in USA Today. But the campaign was a departure from Join Together’s usual work, which consists of quietly compiling policy guides and coordinating a network of addiction prevention and treatment leaders to educate policymakers. Still, Helmuth says, his program’s high-profile campaign was a “natural outcropping” of its mission to give the addiction research and policy community a voice. It worked, he says, because it was the right issue at the right time. 

“We got an issue that resonates with our constituency, and the week before Christmas was a great time for this story,” he says. “And then, honestly, we got a target that is difficult to defend. Drinking games are just stupid; everybody kind of knows that anyway.”