College Drinking Has Roots in Students' High School Days

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 12, 1999 (Chicago) -- High school students who engage in binge drinking are likely to continue the behavior in college and attract new recruits, according to a panel of experts speaking here at the 127th Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. Although the college atmosphere traditionally promotes "hardy partying" as a rite of passage, other students would support alcohol control measures, the researchers say.

"Approximately 48% of high school students and 62% of college students report ... binge drinking in the previous year," says Mallie J. Paschall, PhD, MPH. Those who had binged in high school were likely to continue in college if they viewed it as the norm. New drinkers also were influenced by this view, as well as by new friends who drank. A binge in Paschall's study of 541 students was defined as five or more consecutive alcoholic beverages in one sitting.

"Students were less likely to binge if they felt alcohol involved health risks, if they were involved in religious activities, or if they felt that their friends disapproved," says Paschall, a health research analyst at Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.

"We need to realize that bingeing starts before college," researcher Hugh D. Spitler, PhD, tells WebMD. "The myth that 'college corrupts' is only true for a small percentage of the population." In a survey conducted by Spitler and his colleagues in the department of public health sciences at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., 55% of 1,488 incoming freshmen acknowledged some level of drinking.

Among the students overall, 39% of men and 34% of women drank once a week or more, and 49% of men and 28% of women reported drinking at least five consecutive drinks. Students affiliated with a fraternity or sorority were 3 1/2 times as likely to drink, and students associated with religious organizations were about 3 1/2 less likely.

Although most college students support alcohol control policies, they underestimate the percentage of students who agree, says Linda Langford, PhD, a researcher with the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Problems. In a web- based survey, she and colleagues found out that 72.6% of respondents said they would support the banning of keg parties in residence halls, but they estimated that only 34% of students agreed.

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An assumption of heavy drinking in college is still a barrier, says Alan Sofavi, PhD, an assistant professor of health education at State University of New York College at Cortland. In an analysis of online student newspapers, he and colleagues found 435 stories with alcohol as the main focus. Although the themes in the stories varied widely, the largest number pertained to social life, including one story whose focus was "keg etiquette" and opportunities for "getting destroyed."

"These researchers are using novel research techniques, such as web-based research, to identify cultural messages that promote college binge drinking and behaviors that put students at risk for it," moderator Manuella Adrian, MSc, tells WebMD. "As the result of their findings, we may be able to improve our strategies for addressing this health problem." Adrian is a researcher formerly associated with Health Services Research at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the Health Promotion Center at the University of Toronto in Canada.

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