Binge drinking and teetotaling spread at US colleges

Despite anti-alcohol drives, study shows number of frequent heavy drinkers is up, but so is abstinence.

Back in the bad old days, the Theta Chi fraternity house at the University of Delaware in Newark looked a lot like the proverbial "Animal House" Hollywood made infamous.

Booted off campus for violating school policies in 1988, Theta Chi held one last big drinking party - and then the house burned down.

Well, Theta Chi is back today but with a new look: Heavy drinking parties are out - cleaning parks, and raising money for charity are in.

"In a few years, when all the guys that knew a different culture with all the parties and alcohol are gone, the new guys won't know the difference," says Brooke Guiterman, a former president of Theta Chi. "The new culture will be the norm."

Maybe. But heavy drinking - or binge drinking, as it's known - is still a big part of campus social life. Indeed, a recent survey found that 44 percent of students reported having five or more drinks in succession. That overall number is about the same as it has been for a decade.

Still, a new national survey reveals a sharp and growing divide in campus drinking patterns in the 1990s with a growing number of students saying they abstain entirely from alcohol - and a growing number saying they "binge drink."

The Harvard School of Public Health's 1999 national college survey of 14,000 students reflects a significant "polarization" on campus. Nearly one in five students said they abstained entirely from drinking - a 25 percent increase since 1993. At the same time, the percentage of students who report binge drinking grew from 19.8 percent to 22.7 percent - a 15 percent increase.

Among those who live in fraternities or sorority houses, 80 percent are binge drinkers.

"It is disturbing that these findings show an increase in the most extreme and high-risk form of drinking," says Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "This is, in part, counteracted by a large number of abstainers."

This dichotomy may be explained in part by the hundreds of programs put in place on campuses aimed at curbing binge drinking in the wake of a wave of student alcohol-related deaths, vandalism, and sexual assault.

At the University of Delaware, for instance, alcohol-related crime and vandalism have fallen in recent years as the university has put in place a new system of rating fraternities, granting privileges for good behavior and demerits that could lead to suspension for poor behavior.

But powerful social pressures may be at work, too. "Revulsion against the more extreme forms of drinking may be driving some students away from the drinking scene entirely," Dr. Wechsler says.

Relative newcomers to the anti-drinking crusade include Florida State University in Tallahassee. It is working with local police, restaurants, and bar owners to try to reduce aggressive advertising, like one pitch a new bar put out on Valentine's Day: "No date, get drunk! Free beer all night."

This is exactly what students don't need - and the school is working with local businesses to change the message, says Daniel Skiles, director of the university's Partnership for Alcohol Responsibility. "This is promoting the idea that alcohol substitutes for everything else," he says. "They draw women into bar with free alcohol. A lot of sexual assaults are the result."

On a national level, some experts are concerned about a new ad campaign by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group, concerned about the treatment of cows, is urging people to drink beer instead of milk with the slogan "got beer?"

Yet many colleges are pursuing other ways to curb drinking as well. Take Florida State again. It is promoting total abstinence in new "substance-free" housing on campus. It's a modest effort, a place where 140 students in a small dorm have signed an abstinence contract at a school where there are 32,000 students.

"Some people say, 'Oh cool.' Others, 'Oh you live in the cult dorm - why on earth would you sign up for that?' " says Isiah Harper, a Florida State freshman who lives in the total abstinence dorm. Still, he cites advantages that include "a lot of clear study time."

He still hangs out with friends who drink. "I bring a Coke or just a bottle of water to the football tailgate parties," he says. And he thinks that even though it's small, there is an impact on the huge campus. "I think it opens the door for people," he says. "Lots of people are discovering there are others like them - that they're not freaks of nature. I hope it will encourage more people to drop drinking."

*Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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