Binge Drinking Is Still Common, Study Finds

29 March 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Managing Editor

Binge drinking rates have remained constant over the past decade, even though more students are living in substance-free environments and fewer report drinking heavily during high school, according to a study published in this monthís issue of Journal of American College Health. The study, conducted by a team led by Dr. Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, found that binge drinking rates have remained steady at around 40 percent of all students since 1993.

The study was based on a survey administered to 10,000 students at more than 100 colleges and universities. Staff Counselor Jane Jones said that Colgate is generally similar in its drinking patterns to other "highly selective, northeast schools with Division I athletics." These schools generally have the highest rates of binge drinking, according to the Core Institute.

A recent survey of drinking patterns at Colgate by the Core Institute has been completed, but data is not yet available. Jones said that 452 students participated in the survey, but she was not yet certain whether the results would be a representative sample of the student body. This was the first such survey of Colgate, so data for past years is not available.

Dean of the College Michael Cappeto said that he was not surprised by the studyís findings. "If itís national data, I donít know why we would be different, but we need to look at our own data."

While Wechslerís study noted a 19 percent drop in the number of students who reported drinking heavily during high school, Jones said that she has observed an increase in high school drinking among Colgate students. She said that the "age of initiation," at which students begin drinking, has dropped to 14 or 15.

Jones said that when students begin drinking earlier, they develop more of a tolerance for alcohol. This means that students can be more intoxicated without realizing it, leading, for example, to students who think that they can drive despite having blood alcohol levels of as much as .3, according to Jones.

"That is not a good thing. The purpose of tolerance is to whack you on the side of the head and say 'stop now'," Jones said.

The study defined binge drinking as five drinks in one sitting for a man, or four for a woman, more than once every two weeks. Jones said that this rule of thumb -- which may seem too broad to many students -- was based on an earlier study in which Wechsler compared drinking rates to problems such as vomiting, inability to go to class, arguing and committing sexual abuse.

Jones said that for the most part students who drink more heavily have more problems with their schoolwork. "To make the connection that it just might be because of their drinking, they just donít see it," Jones said.

A study published in 2000 by Wechsler found that students drink more when they think their peers drink more. Jones said that Colgate has been using a "social norming" approach to present students with information on the actual prevalence of drinking habits. This type of an approach was successful in reducing binge drinking at the University of Arizona to 20 percent below the national average, according to a report in the Tucson Citizen.

Interim Director of Residential Life Carrie McLaughlin said that, while Residential Life does not track official numbers of students who request substance-free housing, she has noted an increase in students who want such housing.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of students interested in living substance-free, not necessarily because theyíre substance-free, but because they donít want drugs and alcohol in their living environment," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said that she didnít think that substance-free housing had an impact on student drinking habits. "They, Iím sure, go out and have a great time outside the building," she said.

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