Why boozing on campus is facing a ban

A spate of deaths from alcohol have led to calls for restraint
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One evening in autumn 2006, Gavin Britton, a fresh-faced 18-year-old, attended an important event at university: initiation to the student golf club.

A keen player, Britton was looking forward to the event, which like other initiation rituals at university sports societies involved the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in the name of showing dedication to the cause.

Three months earlier, Britton, of Barton-on-Sea in Hampshire, had celebrated getting two As and a B in his A-levels at King Edward VI School in Southampton, which meant he could get on to the business and economics course at the University of Exeter.

The golf club organisers decided that the night would focus on the drinking game "Pub Golf". Drinkers were given a "scorecard" detailing which drinks to have at each pub, and how quickly to finish them. The first pub was a "Par-One" – a can of cider in one go.

The students visited 13 pubs and bars that night. At one pub, they nominated one of their members to drink a special cocktail, a "Jackson Five", a concoction made regularly for the club. Gavin was chosen and downed the cocktail before, according to eyewitness reports, being violently sick.

The club members were so drunk that no one can remember the last time Gavin was seen that night. The next morning, he was found unconscious by the Phoenix Arts & Media Centre in Exeter, and later that day died in hospital. An inquest ruled that he had suffocated after inhaling vomit into his lungs, and the coroner said: "This is a sad tale of a wasted life."

After the inquest, Gavin's parents issued a statement, saying: "We have lost a much-loved son and brother who was a thoughtful and caring young man. When people such as Gavin go to university, they enter a community of which the families have very little knowledge. We hope that lessons can be learnt from our tragedy."

Gavin's death was tragic, and relatively unusual. Worryingly, the events surrounding it are not. Many of the media reports after his death painted Gavin as a regular partygoer who, they claimed, boasted about drinking on his MySpace page. But the offending quote – "If you're not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space" – was actually from a business textbook, which his friends say gives an idea of the real Gavin. Yet there is no real evidence to support the idea that his behaviour was anything other than normal.

One of his close friends remembers him as "quiet, polite and really academic", and doesn't recognise the Gavin portrayed in headlines such as "Gavin boasted of his drinking on the net".

"He really wasn't known as a big drinker," says Jenny Asher, who lived near Gavin and caught the same bus to school with him for seven years. "When the press came out at the time of his death, we all said that if he hadn't died, it would have been funny because they were so off the mark. They were portraying him as this binge-drinker, this crazy idiot teenager, and he just wasn't like that."

How, then, did an academic and hard-working student drink enough alcohol to kill himself? Fraser Hassell, 19, another member of the university's golf club, told the inquest that there was a lot of peer pressure to drink during the initiation ceremony.

There is no question that Gavin voluntarily drank the amount of alcohol that killed him, yet initiation ceremonies can be especially dangerous because of the expectation of heavy drinking, particularly for new students. This is something that both health professionals and the National Union of Students (NUS) are worried about. The British Medical Association has described initiation ceremonies as "a very dangerous route to go down", and Gemma Tumelty, the national president of the NUS, has called for all student unions to ban them. In the aftermath of Gavin's death, the University of Exeter has done just that.

All sports clubs run through Exeter's Students' Guild (the students' union) now have to sign a code of conduct saying they won't carry out initiation ceremonies or apply peer pressure to drink, and members can face punishments including a £500 fine and expulsion from the guild.

The university feels this has been successful. "People were very shocked at the time of Gavin's death, and it has made them reassess how they behave," says a spokesman. "It has brought home the potential seriousness of initiation ceremonies and people have been very willing to embrace the new rules. The penalties are serious, and if you like sport, the threat of being excluded would be a significant deterrent."

Yet some at the university believe that, despite the initial shock of Gavin's death, many societies have returned to their old habits and found ways to circumvent the ban. John Stevens, editor of Exeposé, the University of Exeter's student newspaper, describes how new events called "welcome drinks" have been introduced. They are initiation ceremonies in all but name, he says.

"The same things are happening and the same culture is there – the code is not having much of an effect at all," he says. "The ban raises awareness, but it's only having a small impact.

A member of one of Exeter's sports societies, who wishes to remain anonymous, confirmed that the drinking culture in his club, and in others, remains strong. "We had 'welcome drinks', which involved dressing up, having to obey whatever the older people said and being forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol," he said.

"It was definitely advertised by our club captain as 'welcome drinks', and they did say, 'We won't force you to drink,' but it was all done in a fairly 'wink-wink, nudge- nudge' fashion."

Other universities have moved towards similar action – Staffordshire and Southampton had both implemented bans before Britton's death. Southampton says the ban has had the positive effect of encouraging more students to participate in sport.

Victims of excessive alcohol

Amanda Rapley, Winchester School of Art

Amanda was 21 when she attended an Ann Summers party on campus in April 2007. She was put to bed by friends after drinking from a free bar, and her body was found the following evening. An inquest into her death found the six days after her death, alcohol levels in her blood were still twice the drink-drive limit, and the coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Kai Dawson, Oxford University

On 12 February 2000, Kai was celebrating his 21st birthday and decided to climb a crane on his way home. With a blood alcohol level of double the legal driving limit, he fell 80ft and died of internal injuries. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Tom Ward, Hull University

In 2005 Tom, 19, a criminology and psychology student, died of "positional asphyxia caused by alcohol intoxication" after taking part in an initiation ceremony for new members of Hull University's rugby team. The ceremony involved teams of students running between pubs and downing drinks before the next team arrived.