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College Binge Drinking Rate 44 Percent; Remains the Same Eight Years Running: Positive Trends Fail to Bring Down Binge Drinking Rate, According to Harvard College Alcohol Study

 
Press Release   |   Abstract   |   Survey Report
 

BOSTON, MA (March 25, 2002) – Despite positive changes thought to be conducive to lowering binge-drinking rates, a remarkably similar proportion of students (44 percent) were classified as binge drinkers in 2001, as in previous survey years (1993, 1997, 1999). One encouraging finding showed that underage students attending colleges in states with extensive laws restricting underage and high-volume drinking were less likely to binge drink.

These findings were released today by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS) (www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas). Two articles on the results appear in the March 2002 issue of the Journal of American College Health.

“The drinking style on campus is still one of excess,” said Henry Wechsler, PhD, principal investigator of the study and director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. “If you are a traditional college student and you drink, the odds are seven in ten that you are a binge drinker.” A traditional college student is defined as one between the ages of 18 and 23 who does not live with his or her parents.

A stable level of binge drinking occurred despite positive national trends that took place between 1993 and 2001. Fewer college students reported that they engaged in binge drinking while they were in high school (32 percent were high school binge drinkers in 1993 and 26 percent were binge drinkers in 2001—a decrease of 19 percent). A dramatic increase (65 percent) was noted in the number of students living in substance-free housing. And, the protective effects of living in these residences may play a role in reducing the secondhand effects of alcohol use. In addition, fewer students (25 percent) reported being members of fraternities and sororities, which have been at the center of the binge drinking culture on campuses. Finally, more students have been exposed to educational materials designed to prevent binge drinking.

“These are all very positive trends,” said Wechsler. “However, it seems that other powerful forces are driving the college binge drinking phenomenon, which appears to withstand many of these supposedly protective factors. Greater attention should be paid to factors that impact the environment around students, which aggressively promotes alcohol use.”

Today’s findings are based on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (www.rwjf.org). The 2001 survey includes responses from over 10,000 full-time students at the same 119 four-year colleges that participated in the 1993, 1997, and 1999 surveys in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Binge drinkers are defined as men who had five or more—or women who had four or more—drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks before the students completed the survey questionnaire. Frequent binge drinkers have consumed these amounts at least three times in the previous two weeks.

High school binge drinking is a major predictor of binge drinking in college. “In this survey year, we’ve seen fewer students coming into college with binge drinking experience in high school, but still the overall binge drinking rate has remained the same,” said Wechsler. “The protective factors driving lower high school binge drinking rates, such as decreased access to alcohol, may disappear once these students arrive at college.”

Despite flat national trends in overall binge drinking, there was a progressive rise in the number of binge drinkers at all women’s schools between 1993 and 2001 (increasing from about 24 to 32 percent—a 31 percent increase). Specifically, there has been a 20 percent decrease (from about 26 percent to 21 percent) in abstainers at all-women’s colleges, while the rate of abstention increased by 11 percent (from about 17 percent to 19 percent) nationally among women at coeducational colleges. There was also a sharp increase in frequent binge drinkers (from about 5 percent to about 12 percent, or fully 124 percent) at the five all-women’s colleges in the 2001 CAS survey.

“Although women at all women’s colleges still drink considerably less than women at coed schools, this finding could be an important shift among female students at these colleges,” said Wechsler. “Our previous surveys found that attending college at an all women’s school was very protective. That seems to be less so now.”

In an article on underage drinking published in the same issue in the Journal of American College Health, Wechsler and his colleagues found that students younger than 21 at the 119 four-year colleges in the CAS sample consumed almost half (48 percent) of the alcohol that all undergraduate students reported drinking.

Underage drinking varied by school. Colleges in localities where a number of key laws regulating underage drinking were in effect had significantly less underage drinking and binge drinking. These state and local laws include making it illegal for persons under 21 to: attempt to purchase alcohol; consume alcohol; use fake ID’s to purchase alcohol; work at an establishment that serves alcohol; and sell alcohol. The laws also include requiring warning signs about the consequences of violating minimum age laws to be posted at alcohol outlets.

In addition, colleges in localities with key laws restricting the volume of alcohol sold or consumed also displayed lower rates of alcohol consumption and binge drinking among underage students. These laws include keg registration; prohibitions on pitcher sales and happy hours; regulation of billboard advertising; lowered statewide legal blood alcohol levels to .08; and bans on the possession of open alcohol containers in public. Fewer underage students at colleges in localities where four or more of these six laws were in effect were drinkers or binge drinkers.

Underage student drinking also differed according to student living arrangements. Binge drinking was lower among students who lived in residences that had greater controls. For example, among those who live with their parents off-campus, only 25 percent binge drink. And among those who live in substance free dorms, only 36 percent binge drink. However, half of those who live off-campus without their parents (50 percent) and those who live in non-restricted dorms (51 percent) binge drink. Almost three in four students (75 percent) living in a fraternity or sorority house binge drink.

The 2001 CAS survey measured the educational efforts that students were exposed to, including: lectures, meetings, or workshops; special college courses; mailings or handouts; posters or signs; and announcements or articles. Although these educational efforts appear to be targeting high-risk drinkers, their use was not associated with a decrease in heavy alcohol consumption, according to the first article. These and other prevention efforts have focused primarily on changing the choices made by the individual drinker.

“This study suggests that prevention efforts must extend beyond these familiar approaches to those that change the alcohol environment around students,” said Wechsler. According to the study, these interventions might include decreasing the availability of alcohol to underage drinkers; limiting the heavy marketing and promotion of alcohol beverages to college students; raising alcohol taxes and prices; and limiting the availability of alcohol by hours of service and days of sale.

During this period of persistent high rates of binge drinking, there has been steady student backing of school policies aimed at reducing binge drinking, such as cracking down on fraternity drinking, prohibiting kegs, banning alcohol advertisements, and offering more substance-free residences.

“The majority of all students backed each of these policies, and even a majority of underage students backed cracking down on underage drinking,” said Wechsler. “College students may be well ahead of college administrators and community leaders in supporting tough measures to deal with this problem.”

The 2001 results from the second article confirm previous findings that underage students drank alcohol less frequently, but were more likely to drink to excess and have drinking-related problems when they drank. A major exception was the lower rate of drinking and driving among underage students. Fewer underage students drink and drive than of-age students, even when extent of driving is taken into account.

“It is possible that zero tolerance laws, which remove driving licenses from people under the minimum legal drinking age with a detectable blood alcohol content, are a strong deterrent,” said Wechsler.

The citations for the articles in this release are the following: “Trends in College Binge Drinking During a Period of Increased Prevention Efforts: Findings from Four Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Surveys 1993-2001” and “Underage College Students’ Drinking Behavior, Access to Alcohol, and the Influence of Deterrence Policies” (Journal of American College Health, March 2002, Volume 50, Number 5). The articles are available on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study Web site: www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas.

Co-authors of the studies with Wechsler include: Jae Eun Lee, DrPH; Toben F. Nelson, MS; Meichun Kuo, ScD; Mark Seibring, BA, BS; Hang Lee, PhD. All authors are with the Department of Health and Social Behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Hang Lee is also with the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (www.rwjf.org), based in Princeton, N.J., is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grant making in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to basic health care at reasonable cost; to improve care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social, and economic harm caused by substance abuse—tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.

 
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