Student Tackles Alcohol Safety in Activist Practicum
Dana Vasers brings expertise from her past career as a lawyer to the Massachusetts Alcohol Policy Coalition through a practicum funded by the Activist Lab.
During her judicial clerkship in a New Jersey criminal court the year after graduating law school, Dana Vasers was astonished by the prevalence of defendants presenting with substance use and mental health concerns.
Eager to address the elephant in the room, Vasers joined the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and spent the next three years striving to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic in the state. Ultimately, however, she realized she was not having the impact she hoped in law enforcement.
“I wanted to focus on prevention in a more proactive role,” says Vasers, whose litigation efforts always put her in the position of reacting to the crisis. She decided to go back to school to focus on public health and health policy and enrolled in the Master of Public Health program at the School of Public Health.
Now a second-year student earning a certificate in healthcare management, Vasers is convinced she made the right choice; she credits her ongoing practicum at the Massachusetts Alcohol Policy Coalition (MAPC) with reinforcing her decision. She is grateful to have found meaningful work that aligns so perfectly with her interests, she says. “It has confirmed my decision to go back to school—as someone that’s been out of school for a while, it was a scary leap.”
Vasers is part of a cohort of MPH students receiving funding and professional development training from SPH’s Activist Lab to support their practicum work on behalf of community-based organizations focused on advocacy. Local grassroots and nonprofit organizations are often under-resourced and unable to fully compensate students for the time and energy they put into advocating for social change, says Emily Welden, assistant director of the Activist Lab. “The funding goes a long way in connecting these organizations with the most passionate and skilled students SPH has to offer.”
“It’s given me the flexibility to work for a great organization that ordinarily would not be able to fund me, but still allow me to support myself,” says Vasers. She first became aware of the funding opportunity during an SPH orientation fair last summer when she met David Jernigan, assistant dean for practice and assistant director of the Activist Lab, handing out Activist Lab t-shirts. Jernigan is well-known for being heavily involved in alcohol policy on the city, state, and national levels, Vasers says, and she was grateful for the opportunity to receive his mentorship.
During a legislative briefing at the Massachusetts State House earlier this year, Jernigan recommended a series of evidenced-based policies to cut alcohol consumption and reduce the burden of adverse health outcomes linked to alcohol. At MAPC, Vasers collaborates with him to advance two pending bills designed to accomplish these objectives by raising alcohol excise taxes.
Massachusetts alcohol excise taxes currently sit at less than 5 cents per drink. The last time the state raised the tax was over 40 years ago, so it has since lost 72% of its value due to inflation, Vasers points out, citing analysis completed by Jernigan with data from 2021. “Alcohol costs the state a lot of money, and the excise taxes are just not sufficient to counter those harms.”
Together, Vasers and Jernigan have met with BU School of Nursing alum Rep. Kay Khan (SON’65,’81), one of the alcohol tax bills’ sponsors, to discuss the importance of the legislation, as well as attended several public hearings to raise awareness of the lesser-known dangers of alcohol use.
The risks of drunk driving are well-publicized and there are robust policies in place to prevent it, but the other harmful effects of alcohol, such as to an individual’s health or the safety and wellbeing of communities, are often underappreciated, says Vasers. In addition to her practicum at MAPC and part-time classes at SPH, she also works full-time on underage drinking prevention initiatives as a senior associate at Synergy Enterprises, a small, women-owned public sector consulting group.
Vasers’ favorite statistic to cite is that Massachusetts has more establishments to purchase alcohol than it does Dunkin Donuts. People are always surprised by this, she says. “I think people oftentimes forget how dangerous alcohol misuse can be because it’s legal and so readily available, and alcohol use is so prominent in culture. But it’s something that’s very important and that everyone should be thinking about.”
Students interested in working with under-resourced community-based advocacy groups, like Vasers is doing at MAPC, are encouraged to apply now for Activist Lab practicum funding. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and funding is currently available for practica beginning in the spring and summer.