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National College Alcohol Study Finds College Binge Drinking Largely Unabated, Four Years Later

 
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BOSTON, MA, September 10, 1998 — The nation's preeminent survey of college drinking finds that "binge drinking" continues largely unabated on American campuses today, based on its second survey of 116 nationally representative universities and colleges across the country. The report, released today at a press conference at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, is a follow-up to the 1993 landmark study and is published in the September issue of the Journal of American College Health. The survey finds that one third more drinkers "drank to get drunk" in 1997 compared to 1993, with the proportion increasing from 39 percent in 1993 to 52 percent in 1997. The number of drinkers who were drunk three or more times in the past month increased by 22 percent. Four of five fraternity and sorority members are still binge drinkers.

The report, from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, was based on the responses of 14,521 students in 1997 and compared to those of 15,103 students surveyed in 1993. The study involved students at 116 colleges in 39 states and was conducted under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, was the Principal Investigator of the study.

Overall, two of five students ( 42.7 percent) were reported to be binge drinkers in 1997, a slight decrease from 44.1% in 1993. Half of that group--one of five students (20.7 percent) were frequent binge drinkers compared to 19.5 percent in 1993. Significantly more students abstained from drinking in 1997 (19.0 percent), up from 15.6 percent in 1993.

"There has been a very small drop in binge drinking between 1993 and 1997, due mainly to an increase of students who do not drink at all. However, this has been more than offset by the increased intensity of drinking among those who drink: more drinking to get drunk, more frequent drunkenness and more alcohol-related problems such as drinking and driving," said Dr. Wechsler.

"Despite highly publicized tragedies and continuing examinations of college alcohol policies, the data indicate that, at the national level thus far, the extent and nature of binge drinking has not changed," continued Wechsler. "In fact, there has been an intensification of severe drinking behavior among drinkers. Fraternity and sorority members, and especially students who live in the houses, continue to be at the center of the campus alcohol culture. If colleges are to have an impact on their alcohol problems, they must drastically change this way of life."

"For those looking for a glimmer of hope, the increase in the proportion of abstainers is important," continued Wechsler. "Campuses seem to be polarized by binge drinking with the numbers of abstainers increasing in the face of more disruptive drinking behavior. Abstainers may be responding to alcohol education efforts or they may simply be repulsed by the binge drinking way of life."

The self-administered questionnaire instructed participants to define a "drink" in equivalent amounts of alcohol: a 12-oz. (360 ml) bottle or can of beer; a 4-oz. (120 ml) glass of wine; a 12-oz. (360 ml) bottle or can of a wine cooler; or a shot (1.25 oz. or 37 ml) of liquor, either straight or in a mixed drink. The study defined heavy episodic or binge drinking as the consumption of at least five drinks in a row for men or four drinks in a row for women during the two weeks before the students completed the questionnaire.

Drinkers experienced more alcohol-related problems in 1997 affecting their health, education, safety and interpersonal relations. These included driving after drinking, damaging property, getting injured, missing classes, and getting behind in school work. In 1997, one in five students (19.8 percent) experienced five or more different alcohol-related problems, an increase of 22 percent since 1993. In 1997, more than one third of the students surveyed (35.8 percent) reported driving after drinking, a 13 percent increase from 1993.

The second-hand effects of binge drinking continue at the same high levels. In 1997, the vast majority of non-binge drinking students are negatively affected by the disruptive behavior of binge drinkers. The study reports that four out of five students (78.8 percent) who were not binge drinkers and who lived on campus experienced at least one second-hand effect of binge drinking, such as being the victim of an assault or an unwanted sexual advance, having property vandalized, or having sleep or study interrupted.

While binge drinking dropped slightly during this time period, increases were noted among minority group members, particularly Asian students. The decrease in binge drinking was larger among colleges in the Northeast region of the country (11 percent) than in other regions of the country.

The student characteristics associated with higher binge drinking rates in 1997 were the same as those associated with higher rates in 1993. They include being: male, white, aged 23 years or younger, never having been married, belonging to fraternities or sororities, living in fraternity or sorority houses, and binging in high school.

Joining Dr. Wechsler as authors of the report are George Dowdall, Ph.D., and Gretchen Maenner, B.S. (St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia); Jeana Gledhill-Hoyt, M.P.H. (Harvard School of Public Health); and Hang Lee, Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles). The full study and relevant links to alcohol sites are available on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study website: www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas.

 
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