At colleges, binge drinking persists

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last week, a spring-break partyer in Cancun, Mexico, fell to his death after apparently binging on alcohol. The incident brings into sharp relief the statistics in a new report on students' drinking habits. For the past eight years, the percent of college students who binge drink has held steady at 44 percent, according to the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study (CAS).

The number of binge drinkers failed to decline despite several hopeful trends. For example, in 2001, compared with 1993, 19 percent fewer college students binged in high school, 65 percent more lived in substance-free housing, and 25 percent fewer joined fraternities or sororities.

CAS defines binge drinkers as men who have had five or more drinks on one occasion in the past two weeks, and women who have had four or more. The 2001 study is the fourth in a series of CAS surveys of more than 10,000 students at 119 four-year colleges. The first study, in 1993, helped to raise awareness of rampant alcohol abuse on college campuses.

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Other findings from the 2001 study:

• Among traditional college students who drink, 70 percent are binge drinkers ("traditional" meaning 18 to 23 years old and not living with parents).

• Underage college students drink nearly half of all alcohol consumed by undergraduates.

• At all-women's colleges in the past eight years the percent of students who were binge drinkers rose to 32 percent from 24 percent; and the number of abstainers decreased by 20 percent.

Some good news did come out of the study: More women (19 percent, up from 17 percent) were abstaining at coeducational colleges. Binge drinking was lower among students living in substance-free housing and those living with their parents. The majority of students supported regulations to reduce binge drinking. And, perhaps most important, binge drinking was less of a problem where state or local laws imposed stricter regulations on the sale and consumption of alcohol.

"Most people say those laws are not enforced, but they seem to be," says Henry Wechsler, director of the CAS project and the principal investigator of the new study. Such laws include prohibitions on purchasing alcohol with fake IDs and bans on happy hours or selling beer by the pitcher.

Dr. Wechsler's main conclusion is that efforts to curb binge drinking so far have focused too heavily on raising student awareness and other forms of education. He recommends broader measures that target the "environment": college drinking traditions, the availability of alcohol to underage drinkers, marketing and promotion, and the cost of alcohol.

Citing reasons college students binge drink, Wechsler includes "norms on campus," a naive sense of invincibility, and the fact that in some places, "you can binge more cheaply than you can go to a movie."

He's quick to note that the burden is not on administrators alone. "Colleges need to work with communities around this problem. They cannot solve this themselves."

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