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Binge Drinking: A Crash Course to Be Avoided

Colleges struggle to get excessive alcohol consumption under control

SUNDAY, March 7, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Advertising campaigns rail against it and many university administrators devote much of their work to stamping it out.

The problem: Binge drinking by college students.

But researchers question whether the efforts are doing any good, especially since statistics suggest undergrads are drinking just as much as they did 10 years ago.

"It's a pervasive, long-term and hard-to-change behavior," says Henry Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Studies Program at Harvard School of Public Health. "I've found no change nationally in the level of this drinking, despite colleges becoming much more aware of it and colleges trying to do something about it."

What to do? Wechsler and others say colleges need to limit access to alcohol and do a better job of educating students about the risks of drinking.

"To those who say it can't be changed, look at smoking and what has happened in this country," he says. "It used to be that people would blow smoke at people's faces indoors and nobody would say anything. Now the smokers are huddled outside, free to smoke, but not to provide it directly to other people."

Binge drinking is defined as drinking till you're drunk, typically four drinks in one sitting for a woman or five for a man. Wechsler characterizes binge drinkers as those who get drunk on a regular basis.

There's no argument over the hazards of drinking too much on campus.

"There are problems for the drinker, from missing classes and falling behind in school work, to getting into arguments and breaking relationships, to injury to vandalism to getting into trouble," Wechsler says.

In fact, federal researchers have linked college drinking to at least 1,400 annual student deaths, 600,000 assaults of students and 500,000 accidental injuries.

What's more, research released last fall by Duke University suggests college students don't realize just how much alcohol they're drinking. When asked to pour the equivalent of one serving of beer, liquor or a cocktail, the students poured as much as 80 percent more than the normal serving size.

This means students might think they're only having four or five drinks when actually they're downing the equivalent of seven or eight, the researchers say.

Teaching students the risks involved with drinking is critical, says Shelly Campo, an assistant professor of community and behavioral health at the University of Iowa. But she says some advertising campaigns simply don't work.

In a study released last year, Campo and her colleagues found that so-called "social norm" ads failed to make an impact. The ads try to take advantage of the powers of peer pressure by telling students how much others drink -- or don't drink. For example, the ads might say "most students have four or fewer drinks when they party."

The ads "have taken on a life of their own, and they've become incredibly popular among college campuses," Campo says. "They're touted as being the answer, the magic answer to this problem."

But her research found students are far more influenced by how much their friends drink, not the drinking habits of student bodies as a whole. "They want to be like their friends, and actually the bigger reality is they want to be like their male friends, whether they're women or men," Campo says.

Wechsler also looked at social-norm programs in a study released last year and found they didn't appear to reduce alcohol use on campus.

Campo supports encouraging students to talk to each other, especially to their friends, about the dangers of alcohol use. "We need to find a way to influence those interpersonal discussions that go on among college students to help them learn to minimize their risks."

Wechsler likes the idea of education, too, and he also supports limiting the supply of alcohol, not just the demand.

"You have to make it harder for underage students to get alcohol, you have to counter [low] prices and specials and promotions, which make it much cheaper to get drunk than go to a movie," he says.

Counseling is a prime approach, too, and studies have shown that it changes the lives of heavy drinkers, says Ralph Hingson, associate dean of research at Boston University who studies binge drinking.

"The problem is most students don't think they have drinking problems and they aren't going to screening programs," he says. "An important question is how to increase the proportion of students who are screened for alcohol problems and able to receive this type of counseling."

More information

Learn about binge drinking from the Harvard School of Public Health. The State University of New York at Potsdam offers a fact sheet on binge drinking.

SOURCES: Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., director, College Alcohol Studies Program, lecturer, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, and co-author Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses; Shelly Campo, Ph.D., assistant professor, community and behavioral health, University of Iowa, Iowa City; Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., M.P.H., associate dean, research, Boston University
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