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Campus Life Includes a Steady Flow of Festive Suds

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March 14, 2000 (Atlanta) -- A slight bump up in the percentage of binge drinkers, but a bigger increase in those who abstain from alcohol: That is the result of a new survey looking at alcohol use among college students.

The study, released today by the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, is the third in a series to look at the issue. Fourteen-thousand students participated. Almost half of them -- 44% -- described drinking habits that fit the description of "binge drinking," that is, men who downed at least five drinks in a row in the two weeks before they were surveyed, and women who downed at least four.

That tally is up a single percentage point from the last survey in 1997. More ominously, the ranks of the worst binge drinkers -- those who indulged heavily three times or more in the weeks leading up to the survey -- rose three points to 23%.

"I think the problem [of alcohol abuse on campus] in general has been remarkably stable in the six years I've studied it," said Henry Weschler, PhD, director of the Harvard School of Public Health Alcohol Study. Speaking at a press conference, Weschler added that he doesn't think stability is anything to celebrate -- given all the efforts that have gone into curbing campus drinking.

The trouble with these efforts, he suggested, may be that heavy drinkers aren't paying attention: "Most abusers don't think they have a problem. In fact, a large majority call themselves 'moderate drinkers.' If someone doesn't think they have the problem, they're unlikely to listen to messages directed at that problem."

And nowhere is "the problem" worse than in campus animal houses (fraternity and sorority residences where partying is heaviest). Indeed, if there is a stark message parents can draw from the data, it is this: Don't let your babies bunk down in frat houses ... or they might be missing lots of class. In fact, Weschler says 80% of students living among brothers and sisters are binge drinkers -- half of them fitting into the "worst drinkers" category.

It is the latter group, no matter where they live, that is the most dysfunctional on campus. Weschler said they are seven times more likely to miss class, five times more likely to black out and 10 times more likely to damage property.

An example of alcohol-related vandalism is breaking a table, which Joel Weigert, a student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, admits he's done. The ex-binge drinker says it's easy for college students to succumb to booze. "There is a culture on campus where drinking becomes the focus of what's going on," he told the press conference. "A party without beer doesn't make much sense in that culture."

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