Rise in Alcohol Abuse by College Women

Survey Also Shows Rise in Abuse of Prescription Painkillers by College Students

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 15, 2007

March 15, 2007 -- A report released Thursday shows what researchers call an alarming rise in binge drinking among college women, part of a trend of rampant drinking and drug use on campuses nationwide.

And a second report released by the government concludes that young girls are increasingly turning to household inhalants to get high, a practice known as "huffing."

It isn't clear whether the studies, which were released separately, point to an overall trend in increased drug use among women and girls. But they are two examples of females catching up in two forms of substance abuse once dominated by males.

Drinking on Campus

Men have historically reported higher rates of drinking than women. But the difference now seems to have evaporated, according to a survey released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), a nonprofit drug abuse research group.

The report found a 16% rise between 1993 and 2005 in the number of full-time college students who acknowledge frequent binge drinking. But binge drinking was up 22% in women, nearly double the increase in men. At the same time, 37% of college women said they drank on 10 or more occasions in the last month.

The study, using a survey of 2,000 students on 400 campuses, also found a steep rise in abuse of prescription pain drugs by college students. Nonmedical use of narcotic drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin shot up 343% between 1993 and 2005, the report shows.

The report "reveals not only a lack of progress, but rather an alarming public health crisis on America's college campuses," says Joseph Califano, president of CASA and a former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration.

'Not on Their Radar Screens'

The report blames lax attitudes on college campuses toward drinking, which is widespread but illegal for most freshmen and sophomores if they are under 21. Califano calls for a ban on alcohol advertising in school-related publications and at sporting events, noting that the sports stadium at the University of Colorado is named for the Coors beer company.

The report also criticizes alumni associations and fraternities and sororities for often fostering an environment where heavy drinking is accepted or encouraged.

"There has been a failure of leadership," Califano says. "The college presidents and the college leadership do not have this high on their radar screens."

Conflict in Data

The data seem in part to conflict with ongoing government surveys appearing to show mostly unchanged rates of drinking among college-age adults.

Nearly 70% of students in the CASA survey acknowledged high-risk drinking in the past month in 2005. But the federal government's main ongoing study of U.S. drug abuse trends found that just 44% of 18-year-olds and 66% of 22-year-olds reported any past-month drinking that same year.

The federal report, known as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, is a primary source of drug use data for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Califano defends his group's study, saying, "I don't think they have done the kind of analysis we have done."

Jennifer DeVallance, an ONDCP spokeswoman, says the report does not undercut government claims that alcohol abuse is relatively flat among college-age adults. Thursday's report focuses on adults at college, while the government's yearly survey looks at all adults of the same age group whether they are in college or not, she says.

"These are two different studies among two different groups of people," DeVallance says. "We would agree that there are some disturbing trends as far as alcohol and prescription drug use goes."

Thursday's report on inhalant abuse shows that the overall number of children participating in "huffing" remained stable between 2002 and 2005. But while fewer boys began using inhalants in 2005 than three years earlier, the number of girls starting use rose from 285,000 to 337,000, the report concludes.

Overall, just under 5% of U.S. children are estimated to have used inhalants to get high, it shows.

Show Sources

SOURCES: "Substance Abuse at America's Colleges and Universities," CASA, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, March, 2007. Joseph Califano, president, CASA. Jonelle C. Rowe, MD, senior advisor for adolescent health, Office of Women's Health, Department of Health and Human Services. "2005 National Survey on Drug Use & Health," Department of Health and Human Services. Jennifer DeVallance, spokeswoman, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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