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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Risky Ritual: 21 Drinks at Age 21

Study Shows Many Students Are Celebrating Dangerously by Binge Drinking on Their 21st Birthday
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 20, 2008 -- How did you celebrate turning age 21? A study shows that most students at one Midwestern university drank, with some celebrating with a risky ritual of consuming 21 drinks.

Researchers at the University of Missouri found that when they asked 2,518 students at an unnamed university in the Midwest how they celebrated turning 21, most of them celebrated with alcohol.

"This study provides the first empirical evidence that 21st-birthday drinking is a pervasive custom in which binge drinking is the norm," notes researcher Patricia Rutledge.

Birthday Binge Drinking

The study shows that four out of five students drank to celebrate turning 21. And women were more likely to drink to celebrate than men.

Other findings include:

  • 22% of men drank more than 21 drinks.
  • 12% of women drank more than 21 drinks.
  • 12% of both women and men downed exactly 21 drinks.

About half of birthday drinkers reported drinking more than their previous maximum number of drinks.

Of those who abstained from drinking until they turned 21, 36% drank when they became 21. Most of these students reported drinking only one to two drinks, but 20% reported drinking five or more drinks.

"This research should serve as evidence that there needs to be more public education about the dangers of 21st-birthday binge drinking," Rutledge says. "The risks here are not limited to those with a history of problematic drinking, and there needs to be a strategy to address a custom that can lead to alcohol poisoning and, possibly, death."

Study authors say the research could be expanded. The data were obtained from a single campus with large athletic and fraternity systems and where the students were predominately white, non-Hispanics.

The study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

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