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College Students Underestimate Their Drinking

Widespread confusion persists as to what constitutes a 'drink,' study finds

FRIDAY, April 15, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- At parties and in alcohol-related research studies, U.S. college students often underestimate the amount of alcohol they drink, researchers report.

"Just about everything we know about how much college students drink comes from survey studies. We ask them to tell us how much they drink and we assume that their answers are totally accurate. In order for students to be accurate, they have to know how much alcohol constitutes a single serving. It turns out that they don't," study first author Aaron White, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, said in a prepared statement.

The study of 133 undergraduate students found they tended to overestimate volumes, over-pour drinks and under-report their levels of alcohol consumption. The study also found that providing the students with educational feedback and instruction on the actual volume of a standard drink helps them better gauge how much they actually consume.

A standard drink is one that contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol -- for example, 12 ounces of 5-percent beer, 5 ounces of 12-percent wine, or 1.5 ounces of 40-percent (80 proof) distilled spirits.

"The problem is that a typical drinker probably doesn't think this way," White said.

"To many people, a 'drink' is one serving regardless of how big it is. Someone who has four gin and tonics would probably give the same answer on an alcohol survey as someone who has had four Long Island ice teas, when it fact the latter could contain three times as much alcohol as the former," White said.

In this study, the college students filled out a survey about their drinking habits and also performed a "free pour" of a single beer, glass of wine, shot of liquor, or the amount of liquor for a mixed drink.

"When we ask them to pour us drinks of different types, they tend to pour too much. When we ask them to simply define how many ounces there should be in a single drink, they tend to give us numbers that are way too big," the Duke researcher said.

"This tells us a few things. The first is that we have totally failed to teach students some of the most basic information about alcohol -- what a single serving is," he said. "It also tells us that students' answers on alcohol surveys are probably inaccurate. How could they be [accurate] if researchers and students have different definitions of how big a single serving is?"

The study appears in the April issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about college drinking.

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, news release, April 14, 2005
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