A New Look at Binge Drinking on Campus

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 29, 2000 (New York) -- Three years after a definitive Harvard study indicated that 42% of college students were binge drinkers, the same researchers are set to release an updated report that will show whether anything has changed.

The 1997 study, along with several highly publicized alcohol-related deaths of college students, focused national attention on the issue of binge drinking on campuses. Binge drinking is defined as consuming at least five alcoholic drinks in a row for men, and four in a row for women.

"Binge drinking is an extensive problem on American college campuses, [and] for the first time, great attention is being paid to the problem and many colleges are trying to do what they can to decrease the harm that it produces," Henry Wechsler, PhD, tells WebMD. Wechsler is principal investigator and director of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study in Boston. His team plans to release its new report in mid-March.

In the meantime, college presidents and researchers are joining forces to attack binge drinking and its associated problems with the same type of strategies that are used to solve other medical problems.

A panel convened by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in Bethesda, Md., met earlier this month to design a research campaign aimed at identifying the scope of the problem and devising ways to prevent and treat binge drinking among college students. The panel?s report and recommendations are slated for release in the spring or fall of 2001.

"Binge drinking produces a number of problems for the binge drinker -- educational, interpersonal, health-related and legal -- and it also produces secondhand effects on campus for the non-bingers such as assaults, unwanted sexual advances, disturbances of sleep and vandalism," Wechsler, who is a member of the NIAAA panel, tells WebMD.

Each year, college students spend approximately $4.2 billion annually to purchase 430 million gallons of alcoholic beverages -- including more than 4 billion cans of beer. The landmark 1997 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that approximately 42% of college students were binge drinkers and close to 20% were frequent binge drinkers.

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In September 1997, MIT freshman Scott Krueger, 18, died from consuming large quantities of beer, whiskey, and rum as part of a fraternity initiation ritual. A Louisiana State University student died in August of that year during his fraternity's bid night.

"Over the past few years, there have been some very public deaths among students due to binge drinking, and this has brought attention to binge drinking, which has been a problem at colleges and universities for a very long time," says Mark Goldman, PhD, a distinguished research professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa and co-chairman of the NIAAA panel. "Binge drinking is not new, but deaths may be increasing due to changes in drinking patterns and/or drinking games on college campuses."

"The point of the NIAAA action is to put this issue on a research track," he says. "We plan to evaluate what we know about binge drinking and where it happens and then look at prevention and treatment and identify the things that are most effective and build on them."

Some suggested solutions include banning advertisers from targeting college students, increasing the cost of alcohol to make it less accessible to students, enforcing fines for students using fake identification, and developing peer counseling programs. Beer is already banned on 25% of college campuses, and 33% do not allow distilled spirits.

"All of us believe that there is no magic potion or defined series of steps that can transform this issue overnight," says the Rev. Edward Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and an NIAAA panel member. "We need to learn from the experiences of other campuses, share that information, and be open to reconfiguring how we deal with the issue," he tells WebMD.

"Binge drinking impedes the quality of education and puts people at risk and too often establishes a lifetime pattern of abuse and addiction," Malloy says.

A recent study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that heavy drinking during the teen years may cause damage to thinking abilities. About half of all college binge drinkers start drinking in high school, Wechsler says.

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Vital Information:

  • Harvard researchers are updating a landmark 1997 study that showed two-fifths of college students were binge drinkers and one-fifth were frequent binge drinkers.
  • In response to some highly publicized alcohol-related deaths among college students, college presidents and scientists are establishing a research program on the topic.
  • Binge drinking is defined as consuming at least five drinks in a row for men and four drinks in a row for women.
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