College Student Binge Drinking Rates Remain High Despite Efforts by School Administrations
For immediate release: March 14, 2000
Boston, MA--Despite several years of increasing efforts on the part of school administrations, binge drinking has remained constant while, alarmingly, the percentage of frequent binge drinkers among college students has gone up. This is one of the findings of the College Alcohol Survey's 1999 survey, the results of which are published in the March issue of the Journal of American College Health.
The Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Survey (CAS) is the foremost survey and analysis of college students' drinking behavior. The CAS defines binge drinkers as men who have had five or more drinks in a row at least once in the two-week period prior to being surveyed. For women, binge drinking entails four or more drinks. The initial CAS took place in 1993, followed by repeated surveys in 1997 and 1999.
In 1999, as in the previous surveys, four out of ten students were binge drinkers. "What is particularly disturbing," said Henry Wechsler, Director of College Alcohol Studies at Harvard School of Public Health, "is that we have seen an increase in the percentage of frequent binge drinkers to 23 percent." Frequent binge drinkers are those who binge at least once per week.
The CAS has turned a spotlight on the consequences of binge drinking to the drinkers themselves and to those in the community around them. Frequent binge drinkers were nine times more likely to miss a class than were non-binge drinkers; they are five times more likely to have unplanned sex or fail to use contraception.
Secondhand effects experienced by members of the college community (regardless of their own drinking behavior) caused by binge drinking include increased likelihood of getting into arguments and physical fights, of experiencing unwanted sexual advances, and of having their study or sleep interrupted.
"In 1994, when we published the results of the original survey," said Wechsler "we were putting numbers to activities that everyone knew were happening. Binge drinking was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about." Now, in response to Wechsler's research and with several highly publicized drinking-related tragedies, many colleges and universities are attempting to reduce the binge-drinking problem.
School administrations are using a variety of methods to reduce binging, said Wechsler. Most apply a strategy of educating the student body about the dangers of binge drinking. Some schools target such messages to groups at particularly high risk of binge-drinking behavior: sorority and fraternity members and athletes.
"That we haven't seen a drop in numbers of binge-drinking students despite anti-drinking efforts is perhaps disappointing, but not terribly surprising," said Wechsler. "Binge drinking behavior is entrenched in the college culture and is supported both by social activities and by the geographic availability of alcohol from retail stores and from bars. It may be that current reduction efforts are working, but that it will take time for the results to show themselves."
According to Wechsler, the optimum binge drinking prevention strategy will incorporate general student education with special attention paid to high-risk groups. But education is not enough. Colleges also need to provide activities as alternatives to binge drinking and these activities need to be attractive to the students. Schools should also work with the non-academic communities in their neighborhoods to form coalitions to eliminate "happy hours" and other opportunities for discount drinking.
The research is presented as a pair of articles, "College Binge Drinking in the 1990s" and "What Colleges are Doing About Binge Drinking." The full text of these studies and additional information about the CAS may be found at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas.
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