Alcohol Accessibility, Living Environment, Parents Among Key Factors in Decision to Binge Drink
BOSTON (January 21, 2003)—College freshmen learn more from an environment that promotes binge drinking, than from lectures, workshops, or educational materials on alcohol, according to a national study from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. The report examined why some college freshmen, who did not binge drink in high school, take up binge drinking, while others drink little or not at all.
“College alcohol education programs are reaching the students at the highest risk of binge drinking, but messages from environments around them that promote heavy drinking exert a greater influence on students than do educational messages promoting restraint,” said lead author Elissa Weitzman, Sc.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health. “Cues from the environment, such as the cheap pricing of alcohol, encourage students to pick up binge drinking even though they come to college without a history of it.”
The study appears in the January issue of The Journal of Adolescent Health, and was funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its findings are based on a nationally representative sample of students attending 119 U.S. colleges who completed questionnaires regarding alcohol use in the spring of 1999. It analyzes the responses of 1,894 college freshmen, who were not binge drinkers in high school. The study compared the responses of students who took up binge drinking in college (the uptake group) to those of students who did not binge as college freshmen (the non-uptake group). Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in a row for a man, four or more for a woman at least once in the past two weeks.
Once in college, exposure to alcohol education did not distinguish uptake from non-uptake students. While the study indicated that these programs appropriately targeted high-risk binge drinking groups, it found that the educational interventions were not enough to change behaviors.
The study also confirmed that environments with easy and cheap access to alcohol, as well as the level of drinking at a college, housing unit, and/or among friends, influenced students to take up binge drinking. In addition, parent’s alcohol use and attitudes about children using alcohol prior to college were notable factors.
“We cannot assume that students who get through high school without binge drinking are invulnerable to taking it up in college,” said Henry Wechsler, PhD, director of the College Alcohol Study and co-author. “College administrators must understand that there are still so many obstacles—and temptations—in the way, and the things that are supposed to help, like alcohol education, seem to have very little impact alone.”
Factors that most influenced students to take up binge drinking included:
- Low price for alcohol. Students who paid $1 or less for a drink were four times as likely to be in the uptake group.
- Easy access to alcohol, getting it from someone 21 or older, or without an ID.
- Attending a school with many binge drinkers or living in a residence with many binge drinkers. Living in a substance-free dorm was a protective factor.
- Students’ perceptions of the drinking behavior of their friends. Students who believed that most of their close friends binged were more likely to take up binge drinking. However, students’ perception of the drinking level of all students at their school was not associated with taking up binge drinking.
- Parental behavior and attitudes. Students who reported that their parents drank while they were growing up were more likely to take up binge drinking than students who said their parents didn’t drink. Students who also reported that their parents disapproved of their children drinking while they were growing up were less likely to take up binge drinking.
- The age at which students first started drinking. Those who began recreationally drinking, and/or who reported being drunk before 16 years of age, were more likely than other freshmen to binge drink in college.
The results suggest the importance of a comprehensive approach to preventing binge drinking in college, the authors conclude. Such interventions should include environmentally oriented approaches that focus on supply and access, substance-free housing, and educational programs.
“College students are quick learners. The alcohol environment is hard to miss, and alcohol education messages simply aren’t enough,” Wechsler said.
Along with Weitzman and Wechsler, as authors of the article, “Taking Up Binge Drinking in College: The Influences of Person, Social Group and Environment,” is Toben F. Nelson, M.S.