DRINKING parties long have been a staple of college life on many campuses. Students widely regard them as a rite of passage, and a mostly benign one at that. Even parents sometimes express relief that their offspring are ``only'' drinking, rather than using drugs.
Now a study from Columbia University challenges those naive attitudes. It reports that binge drinking among college students has reached alarming proportions, putting women at particular risk. More than 1 out of 3 college students say they drink specifically to get drunk, according to the study. Although college men remain the heaviest drinkers, binge drinking among college women has risen from 10 percent in 1977 to an astonishing 35 percent today. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of students are alcoholics, a rate roughly double that of the general adult population.
The sad, sometimes tragic effects of youthful drinking reach to every corner of campus life and beyond. Ninety percent of all reported campus rapes occur when the assailant or the victim has been drinking. Alcohol also plays a part in 95 percent of violent crime on campus and 80 percent of campus vandalism. Add to these problems the unintended pregnancies and AIDS transmissions that are highly correlated with alcohol use, and the consequences multiply. ``Thousands of our best and brightest are being lost here,'' warned Joseph Califano Jr., president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia, which commissioned the study.
The commission recommends that campuses establish specific policies about alcohol use and set up prevention programs. It also urges schools to ban promoting and ad-vertising alcohol at college-sponsored events and in campus publications.
These recommendations could represent a vital first step in changing students' behavior. Yet there remains an urgent need to help young women and men alike see alcohol as debilitating rather than liberating. Equality of opportunity has long been a goal of the women's movement. But new freedoms do not constitute an excuse to indulge in self-destructive behavior.
The alarm is being sounded loudly and clearly on smoking. A next step is to recognize that alcohol is an addiction equally threatening to the physical and emotional well-being of young users.