MONDAY, June 15, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Binge drinking among American college students is on the rise, along with its consequences of drunk driving and drinking-related deaths, U.S. health officials report.
In fact, drinking-related deaths among students aged 18 to 24 years have increased steadily from 1,440 a year in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005, according to a report from the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Binge drinking also increased during this time, with the proportion of students who said they'd binged on alcohol in the past month going up from 42 to 45 percent.
The proportion of students who admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol rose from about 26 to 29 percent, according to the report.
"Unfortunately, what we see is the proportions of college students who engage in binge drinking has increased," said lead researcher Ralph Hingson, director of the institute's division of epidemiology and prevention research.
"There's a whole culture that needs to be changed around drinking and driving under the influence among young people in the United States," he said. Adding to the problem is that alcohol is cheap and many alcohol beverage makers target high school and college students, Hingson said.
Often the problem begins before college. "The younger people are when they first become intoxicated," he said, "the greater the likelihood that when they are in college they will meet alcohol-dependence criteria: that they will drive after drinking; that they will ride with drinking drivers; they will be injured under the influence of alcohol; or they will have unplanned and unprotected sex after drinking."
To reach their conclusions, Hingson's team used information from government databases and national surveys on alcohol use. Their report appears in a supplement to the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Not only are the people who binge drink putting themselves at risk, but their drinking can have serious consequences for others, Hingson said.
"We estimate there are probably 700,000 students who are assaulted each year by a drinking college student and 100,000 sexual assaults that are linked to college drinking," he said. "Plus half of the drinking-related traffic deaths among college students are people other than the drinking driver."
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said that to reverse the trends, society needs to take drinking among college students more seriously.
"Options for bad judgment available to a college student are determined by society, and ours is decidedly ambivalent about alcohol," Katz said. "Drinking to excess is often given favorable treatment in the media, and in social groups."
To change these trends, young people drinking to excess will need to be discouraged by the very people whose opinions matter most to them -- friends in their own peer group, Katz said.
"For this to occur, our society must both render and convey a clearer verdict opposing this casual form of alcohol abuse," he said.
Hingson said that a number of interventions have been shown to work, including counseling high-risk drinkers, raising the price of alcohol, and getting colleges, community health departments and police to work together on the problem.
Yet some college presidents think there should be a debate about lowering the drinking age, Hingson noted. "But, when we look at the data, binge drinking and driving is mostly among 21- to 24-year-olds," he said. "It's not among the 18- to 20-year-old group," he said.
"It appears to me that some colleges are not implementing the interventions, where we've got evidence that they work," Hingson said. "The challenge for us is to make sure colleges understand what things are working. We have to get them to expand screening and interventions to reach wider populations of students and work with communities."
Dr. Marc Galanter, director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse in the psychiatry department at the New York University School of Medicine, said that binge drinking among college students has far-reaching effects for the students.
"The heavy drinking during college not only results in severe consequences at that time, [but] it also primes college students for later alcohol addiction," Galanter said. "Heavier drink at this age is a predictor of later alcoholism and is likely a major causative factor."
And Hingson said that efforts akin to what has been done to reduce smoking are needed to deal with the drinking problem among young people.
"We as a society have a collective responsibility to try and change this culture of drinking at colleges and among young people," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on alcohol consumption.