Sept.12, 2003 (Philadelphia) -- If you're big on beer but short on funds, head to the nearest college campus for the cheapest and most plentiful brew. And that could explain why nearly half of all college students are serious binge drinkers.
"We found the average price of a beer was 25 cents," says Henry Wechsler, PhD, who with fellow Harvard researchers investigated how alcohol is sold near 118 college campuses across the country. "You can get drunk for less money than it costs for a Happy Meal."
And they apparently are. In what is now his fourth study on the rates of campus drinking since 1993, Wechsler finds that 44% of college students continue to be binge drinkers -- described as men having at least five drinks in a row and women having four, at least once in a two-week period.
His latest study, however, offers a likely reason: The easy and cheap availability of booze on or near college campuses.
Kegs and Party Balls
The researchers visited 830 bars, restaurants, and clubs, as well as more than 1,600 liquor stores. About two in three of those businesses offered beer at discounted prices compared with what's found elsewhere, sometimes as low as 5 cents per glass. They also surveyed 10,000 students.
They also found that campuses with the highest rates of drinking were those with nearby businesses selling high-volume packages, such as kegs, 30-can cases, or "party balls" -- "the equivalent of 21/2 cases of beer shaped like a ball," says Wechsler.
His findings are published in this month's issue of The American Journal of Preventative Medicine and presented at the American Medical Association's annual Science Reporters Conference.
"Typically, it's colleges with large fraternity and sorority systems," Wechsler tells WebMD.
But most of the colleges studied -- one-third of which are smaller private universities not known as "party" schools -- offer an environment in which alcohol is sold at very low prices and at very high volume.
"There was no real difference in how alcohol is marketed at smaller schools and larger ones," he tells WebMD. "They had the same types of drink specials and large-volume packages."
Cracking Down on Underage Drinking
The take-home message: Campus administrators and authorities in college towns who hope to crack down on the high rates of underage drinking should take measures to control how alcohol is marketed to students.
"Colleges are strong and influential members of their communities, and even if this alcohol is being sold off-campus, their voice can and should be heard," says Wechsler. "We cannot simply focus on the students in our efforts to limit heavy drinking and the problems it poses for the college and the community. It has taken a number of different factors for colleges to reach the levels of drinking that are taking place, and the supply of alcohol is one of these factors."
He advocates for the formation of a national campaign to stop underage drinking, working with the alcohol industry, and also recommends that college administrators and residents of college towns put more pressure on governmental authorities to curb the availability of cheap and bountiful alcohol.
In an accompanying study, Wechsler reports that states with more restrictive laws related to underage drinking have lower rates of students who drive after binge drinking.
Roughly half of the alcohol consumed on campus is by underage drinkers. Wechsler says that nearly one in three college students has driven after drinking, and 11% admit to driving after having at least five drinks. Alcohol plays a role in nearly half of all car crashes involving teenagers, reports the American Medical Association.
"This study provides a blueprint for a comprehensive, national plan to combat underage drinking, which is turning into an epidemic among our nation's youth," says the AMA's J. Edward Hill, MD, in a prepared statement.