March 25, 2002 -- Despite alcohol awareness days, "dry" dormitories, and alcohol-free fraternities and sororities, just as many college students engaged in binge drinking in 2001 as did in 1993. A new report shows 44% of college students qualified as binge drinkers last year by downing at least four or five drinks in a row.
"The drinking style on campus is still one of excess," says study author Henry Wechsler, PhD, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If you are a traditional college student and you drink, the odds are seven in 10 that you are a binge drinker."
A traditional college student was defined as someone aged 18-23 who does not live with his or her parents. Binge drinking is considered having five or more alcoholic beverages in a row for a male and more than four drinks for a female.
The findings released today are part of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study and appear in the Journal of American College Health. The study surveyed students at 119 four-year colleges about their drinking habits in 1993, 1997, 1999, and 2001.
Although the number of binge drinkers on campus has remained steady in recent years, fewer college students now report that they engaged in binge drinking when they were in high school (32% in 1993 and 26% in 2001).
The study also shows that a growing number of students fall at one extreme or the other when it comes to drinking habits. The number of abstainers at co-ed campuses increased from 16% to 19% of all students, while the number of frequent binge drinkers (those who drank in binge amounts at least three times in the previous two weeks) increased by 124% from 5% to 12%.
Where a student lived seemed to have a big impact on drinking habits. More than 75% of those who lived in fraternities or sororities were binge drinkers compared with only 35% of students who lived in substance-free dormitories. In addition, there was a 31% increase in the number of binge drinkers at all women's schools, which traditionally had much lower rates of binge drinking than co-ed campuses.
Although more students say they've been exposed to educational materials designed to curb binge drinking, researchers say other, more powerful forces continue to drive the phenomenon.
"You can have a binge more cheaply than you can go to a movie," says Wechsler. "The supply, the fact that drinking is cheap, and the drinking culture that pervades campuses are all factors that contribute to it."
While headlines about binge drinking may grab the public's attention, some experts say it's time to get past the binge-drinking label so campus officials can foster cooperation and work more effectively with students.
"It's a labeling students resent," says Gail Gleason Milgram, EdD, professor and director of education and training at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University. "We have to acknowledge that alcohol has been a part of the adolescent and college experience for a long time and try to create innovative ways to lower the risks associated with that."
Milgram tells WebMD it's misleading to label all of these students with a term that is associated with alcoholism and being in a state of intoxication for days at a time.
Milgram says the average 150-pound person metabolizes about one alcoholic beverage per hour or hour and 15 minutes. Therefore, a person who has four to five drinks over the course of a day or evening may not necessarily become drunk or suffer from a drinking problem.
She says the study does highlight the fact that the haphazard alcohol education and prevention programs currently in place at some colleges clearly aren't having much of an effect. The goal of these efforts shouldn't be to stop drinking entirely, but to give students a choice and a more balanced perspective.
"We need to decide if we're really going to invest the money and the resources to create activities and programs that students are interested in," says Milgram.
For example, if the only activity happening on campus is a party at a fraternity house where alcohol will be served, she says students who want to socialize don't have much of choice. But by coordinating efforts with students, colleges and communities can develop alternatives, such as opening late-night cafes and video stores, midnight sports leagues, or keeping student centers open through the night.-->