Press Releases

2000 Releases

Underage College Drinkers Have Easy Access to Alcohol, Pay Less, and Consume More Per Occasion Than Older Students

For immediate release: June 19, 2000

BOSTON, MA -- Despite the national 21-year minimum drinking age law, underaged drinking is pervasive on college campuses, according to a new study released today by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. Two in three (63 percent) underage students reported drinking in the past 30 days. These students pay less per drink than of-age students and, though they drink less frequently, drink more per occasion than older students.

"In these college settings, where about one half of students are under age 21, regular use and abuse of alcohol is part of many students' environments," said Henry Wechsler, PhD, lead author of the study and Director of the College Alcohol Study at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Wechsler and his colleagues on the study surveyed approximately 7,000 college students under the age of 21 and approximately 5,000 students aged 21-23 about their drinking patterns. The results appear in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study.

The underage students surveyed, most of whom reported that it was "easy" or "very easy" to obtain alcohol, were more likely to obtain alcohol inexpensively and more likely to drink in private settings such as dorms and fraternity parties.

More than half (57 percent) of underage students who drank reported that they paid less than one dollar for a drink, got it free, or paid a set price for an unlimited number of drinks compared to 15 percent of students 21 to 23 years of age. "Easily obtainable cheap alcohol, especially beer, fuels binge drinking for underage college students," Wechsler said.

Underage college students drink less frequently: 63 percent of the underage students reported drinking in the past 30 days compared with 74 percent of the of-age students. However, underage students drink more per occasion than older students: 42 percent had five or more drinks compared with 27 percent of the older students, the researchers found.

Underage students were also significantly more likely to experience alcohol-related problems, such as engaging in unplanned sexual activity, damaging property, injuring themselves, getting into trouble with police, being treated for alcohol overdose, doing something they later regretted, or forgetting their actions, according to the study.

One alcohol-related problem not associated with underaged students was driving while intoxicated. Students under 21 were half as likely as of-age students to drive after drinking. "This may be related to zero-tolerance drunk driving laws aimed at underaged drinkers," said Wechsler.

In addition to stricter enforcement of the drinking-age law at bars, the researchers suggest targeting happy hours, alcohol promotions, and the sale of beer in kegs. "Areas near college campuses are characterized by a high density of alcohol outlets, intense competition for customers, and high-volume, reduced-price sales," said Wechsler.

The practice -- common in fraternities and other campus groups -- of charging an admission fee entitling guests to unlimited drinks should also be targeted, say the researchers, since surveyed students who received drinks for a set price were more likely to binge. "Eliminating this practice of selling alcohol without a license should be a priority," said Wechsler.

Other authors of the study are: Meichun Kuo, ScD, also at Harvard School of Public Health (Boston, MA); Hang Lee, PhD, at UCLA School of Medicine (Torrance, CA); and George W. Dowdall, PhD, at St. Joseph's University (Philadelphia, PA).

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sponsored by the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine and the American College of Preventive Medicine, is published eight times a year by Elsevier Science.

Complete text of the article (prepress), may be found at:

Environmental Correlates of Underaged Alcohol Use and Related Problems of College Students (PDF)

More information on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study can be found at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu