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College Kids Drink More Than They Think

When they pour a drink, they exceed standard servings, study finds

FRIDAY, Nov. 14, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- College students drink much more alcohol than they realize, a new study suggests, raising questions about the validity of widely cited surveys on campus drinking.

The reason: Students tend to pour much more than standard servings of alcohol into cups, says the study, published in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The study focused on 106 Duke University undergraduates, all of whom poured into empty cups of different sizes the amount of fluid they considered to be one serving of beer, one shot of liquor or the alcohol in one mixed drink.

Students in every case "markedly overestimated" the amount of alcohol for a standard drink, as defined by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Studies Program. The Harvard program defines as a standard drink a 12-ounce beer or 1 1/4 ounces of liquor in a shot or mixed drink.

The Duke students exceeded those standards -- by 80 percent for mixed drinks, 26 percent for shots and 25 percent for beer, the study found.

"What this should tell us is that when students say they have four or five drinks, they could be having eight or 10 drinks," says study author Aaron M. White, an assistant research professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

"Under the current definition of binge drinking, there are probably way more students that fall into that category than we think," White says.

Binge drinking has been defined as consumption of five or more drinks in a row for men -- four or more for women -- at least once in the past two weeks.

The study notes that most of the research on college drinking comes from survey data, based on students' responses to questions about their drinking habits.

However, says White, "part of the problem is that when we talk to students about safe levels of drinking, they probably have a different idea about what a drink is. If they define a standard drink differently than the big surveys that means that we can't take their answers to survey questions at face value."

In the study, the Duke students -- 54 males, 52 females -- poured into different-sized cups an amount of water equivalent to how much beer or liquor they would pour. As the cup size increased, so, too, did the gap between standard drink amounts and what the students poured, the researchers found.

When asked to pour a standard beer into a 32-ounce cup, for instance, some students filled the cup to the top -- the equivalent of 2 1/2 standard drinks, the study says.

The difference between reported and actual drinking could help explain what seem like high numbers of alcohol-induced memory blackouts based on how much students report they drink, the researchers say.

The study called for more efforts to educate students about what constitutes a standard alcoholic drink.

Henry Wechsler, director of Harvard's College Alcohol Studies Program, calls the results of the small study "troubling" and says it wouldn't be surprising if a larger study confirmed the findings.

"This is a very interesting and important study, and I think we really need to look at it very carefully," says Wechsler, coauthor of Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses.

Wechsler says heavy marketing by the alcohol industry, as well as specials and promotions at bars near colleges, contribute to the drinking culture.

"It's part of the very wet environment at college campuses where beer flows like water and is cheaper" than bottled water, he says, and "having a binge is cheaper than going to a movie."

A three-year study commissioned by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism linked college drinking to at least 1,400 annual student deaths, 600,000 assaults of students and 500,000 unintentional injuries. College alcohol also is associated with drinking and driving, diminished academic performance and medical and legal problems, the institute says.

More information

For more on college drinking, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism or the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.

SOURCES: Aaron M. White, Ph.D., assistant research professor, psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, and research psychologist, Durham VA Medical Center, both in Durham, N.C.; Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., director, College Alcohol Studies Program, lecturer, Harvard School of Public Health, and coauthor Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses; November 2003 Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research
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