Two Studies on Binge Drinking Show Serious Problems on Nation’s Campuses

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Thursday, April 11, 2002

14,000 Deaths per Year linked to Alcohol Abuse
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

Despite significantly higher public awareness of the problem of binge drinking, among American college students as well as the general public, binge drinking remains a serious problem on the nation’s college campuses. While the percentage of students reporting that they abstain from alcohol has increased fairly significantly, the percentage of students who engage in binge drinking (defined as the consumption of at least 5 drinks in a row for men or 4 drinks in a row for women during the previous 2 weeks) has also increased, especially among certain sub-groups of college students. Such are the findings from the 2001 installment of an ongoing study by the Harvard School of Public Health, the College Alcohol Survey (CAS), the results of which appeared in an article in the March 2002 edition of the Journal of American College Health. The study surveys a representative national sample of college students from some 119 colleges (the number of colleges participating has varied over the years) about their own drinking patterns and those of their fellow students. Previous surveys were conducted in 1993, 1997 and 1999.

The coincidental release this week of another study on college drinking conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health highlights the pressing need for attention to the problem. The study, one of two dozen commissioned by the national Task Force on College Drinking, convened in 1998 by the National Advisory Council of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health, linked alcohol abuse to some 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year. In addition, according to a study reviewed in the Feb. 15, 2002 issue of the Dot.Commentary, some 25 percent of sexually active young adults between the age of 18-24 (many of whom are college students) reported having unprotected sex because they were drinking or using drugs.

While some findings from the 2001 College Alcohol Survey were encouraging, others are cause for concern. For example:

The Bad News:

  • The percentage of students who reported frequent binge drinking (3 or more binge drinking episodes in the past 2 weeks) increased, from 19.7% in 1993 to 22.8% in 2001.
  • There was a significant spike in binge drinking and frequent binge drinking among women at all-women’s colleges during the same time period, compared to a decrease among women at co-ed colleges. The rate of alcohol abstention also increased among women co-eds but declined among students at all-women’s colleges. The overall percentages of binge drinkers at all-women’s colleges is still only about half the percentage of women binge drinkers at co-ed colleges, but the gap has narrowed considerably.
  • College binge drinking increased even while it decreased among high school students. Normally, lower rates of high school drinking are associated with lower rates of college drinking.

The Good News:

  • In contrast to the increase in binge drinking, researchers noted what they called a “polarization of drinking behavior,” that has increased since 1993. For example, the number of students who abstained from alcohol in the past year has increased from 16.4% in 1993 to 19.3% in 2001.
  • Researchers noted a decrease in binge drinking among residents of fraternity & sorority houses, which, in the past, have been the site of some of the most extreme drinking behavior on campus.
  • There has been a significant decline in binge drinking among Hispanic & Native American students.
  • Student support has increased for certain alcohol control policies (prohibiting kegs on campus, offering alcohol-free student housing, banning alcohol ads from campus).

Although research on effective prevention strategies is relatively new and still incomplete at this stage, researchers for both studies agree that the problem is complex, since any number of environmental and personal factors can influence students’ decisions about drinking. The College Alcohol Survey noted that prevention efforts so far have tended to focus on individuals’ perceptions about drinking and its consequences-personal consequences and legal consequences, such as college sanctions for problem drinking. Both studies found that the most effective strategies have more to do with changing the atmosphere on campus that contributes to binge drinking. Researchers suggest such strategies as severely restricting the availability of alcohol on campus, enforcing laws governing underage drinking and the purchase of alcohol, changing hours at which alcohol sales are legal, even re-instituting Saturday classes.

“Given such strong evidence of the harm caused by binge drinking-both to the individual drinker himself and to those around him-it is clear that college and university authorities need to do more to address this problem,” said Janice Shaw Crouse, senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute. “And students themselves also have a responsibility to exercise restraint when it comes to irresponsible behavior of all kinds. While socializing is an integral part of the college experience, it should not be accompanied by underage (illegal) and binge drinking, nor should it be pursued at the expense of the health and safety of the students and others.”

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