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Survey Finds Students Have Largely Accurate Perceptions of College Binge Drinking

For immediate release: September 08, 2000

Boston, MA — According to a new report released today by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, college students have largely accurate perceptions of the levels of drinking on their campuses. At the median, students estimated that 35 percent of all undergraduates binge drink. This is close to the 44 percent rate that researchers have found to exist nationally. In addition, the median student definition of binge drinking is six drinks in a row for men and five for women. This is just one drink higher than researchers' widely used five/four measure.

The report was based on the responses of 14,138 students at 119 nationally representative colleges in 40 states in 1999. The study was funded under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. An article on the survey appears in the September 2000 issue of the Journal of American College Health.

"The study shows that students generally know more about campus drinking than they're given credit for," said Henry Wechsler, PhD, Director of the College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health and principal author of the new report.

The study compared students' perceptions of their overall campus binge-drinking rate to its actual rate, determined by the College Alcohol Study. That study defined binge drinkers as men who had five or more, or women who had four or more, drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period. It defined a drink as a 12-oz. beer; a 4-oz. glass of wine; a 12-oz. wine cooler; or a shot (1.25 oz.) of liquor.

Students were asked to indicate the proportion of students on their campus who binge drink. Each college was then assigned a binge-drinking rate based on these responses. At 60 percent of the colleges, the student estimates of campus binge-drinking rates were within 10 percent of the actual rates. At 32 percent of the schools, students underestimated the binge-drinking level, and at 8 percent, students overestimated the level.

"The study puts into perspective claims that most students overestimate campus drinking, and that they define binge drinking at levels much higher than the five/four," Wechsler said. "Both of these assumptions have been based more on belief than scientific data."

A five-drink measure of binge drinking is widely used. In addition to the College Alcohol Study, the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Drug Abuse use this number of drinks in a row to denote binge drinking. Researchers consider it a public health screening device that indicates a high prevalence of alcohol-related problems among students.

According to the study, students' definition of binge drinking depends on their own drinking level. The more a student drinks, the higher the measure the student applies. For instance, abstainers say that a binge is five drinks in a row for a man and four for a woman; students who drink but do not binge say it is six and five; and frequent binge drinkers say it is eight and six. One in three frequent binge drinkers places the bar higher still, at 10 or more drinks in a row for men.

"The fact that students' definitions of binge drinking vary with their own drinking levels, suggests that many of the complaints that the five/four measure is too low may be coming from the small percentage of extremely heavy drinkers," Wechsler said.

The new findings have implications for the social norms approach to reducing excessive drinking on college campuses that has been put in place at one in nine colleges, according to the study. This approach assumes that students base their drinking on their perception of the campus-drinking norm, and that students typically overestimate that norm, leading them to drink more. As a result, social norm advocates assume that providing students with accurate information about the campus drinking rate will lead them to lower their alcohol consumption.

The authors point out, however, that far more students underestimate than overestimate binge drinking on their campuses. So, although a social norms approach may be effective with binge drinkers who overestimate the level of alcohol use on campus, they represent a small minority-just 13% of students surveyed. But the approach could backfire with the large number (47 percent) of all students who underestimate the rate. "This begs the question of how students who underestimate the norm will change their drinking when they learn the correct higher level," Wechsler said. "A social norms approach to reducing heavy campus drinking calls for careful consideration as binge drinking is a complex problem."

The study found that students' perceptions of whether their schools had a drinking problem were related to their own drinking levels. For instance, a majority of abstainers (and non-bingers) considered alcohol use to be a problem on campus. Conversely, a minority of binge drinkers considered it a problem, and frequent binge drinkers were least likely to consider it a problem.

Joining Dr. Wechsler as coauthor of the article, "College Students Define Binge Drinking and Estimate Its Prevalence: Results of a National Survey," is Meichun Kuo, ScD (Department of Health and Social Behavior, Harvard School of Public Health).

For further information, contact:

Amanda Franks, Dionne Dougall or Ellen Wilson
Burness Communications
Phone: 301-652-1558
Fax: 301-654-1589