September 11, 1998
Little Drop on Campuses in Binge Drinking
Fraternity Members Among Heaviest College Drinkers, Study Shows (Dec. 15, 1997) After Alcohol-Related Death, Students Bury a Fraternity Pledge (Aug. 28, 1997)
By CAREY GOLDBERG
BOSTON -- A sequel to a landmark national study of binge drinking among college students has found that despite efforts at education and discipline, binge drinking around campuses dropped just slightly between 1993 and 1997, Harvard researchers said Thursday.
The Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study found in 1997 that about two out of five students -- 42.7 percent -- could be considered binge drinkers. That is, they had consumed five drinks in a row for men, or four drinks for women, in the two weeks before they answered the questionnaire. That proportion was down a bit from 44.1 percent in 1993.
The survey also showed a slight rise in those who abstain from drinking, from 15.6 percent in 1993 up to 19 percent in 1997.
But at the other end of the spectrum, among heavy drinkers, it also found an increase in those who said they not only binged but binged frequently: they rose to 20.7 percent of the 14,521 students in the 1997 survey from 19.5 percent of more than 15,000 students in the 1993 sample.
"Disappointment is the No. 1 emotion," Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health and principal author of the study, said in a telephone interview about his reaction to the results. "It may be we're not doing enough at all levels and we've got to start thinking about this in a broader context than simply educating students, which has been the traditional approach."
In fact, many colleges across the country over the last several years have tried to stem heavy student drinking, spurred in part by an unceasing string of accidental deaths, ranging from car crashes to alcohol poisonings, caused by drinking.
But the study by Wechsler and his colleagues appeared to highlight the intractable attraction that binge drinking holds for many students, their adherence to what many see as a familiar rite of passage. In particular, it noted that binge drinking in fraternities and sororities, hotbeds of heavy drinking at many colleges, did not seem to have diminished at all. In both 1993 and 1997, it found, four out of five residents of fraternities and sororities houses were binge drinkers.
The study surveyed 116 colleges in 39 states, using self-administered questionnaires sent in anonymously by mail. It was financed by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The study included a breakdown by ethnicity and found that Asian-American students, who had a binge-drinking rate only about half that of the general student population in 1993, had increased their binge-drinking at an above-average rate, while whites decreased disproportionately. Even so, only about 25 percent of Asian-American students were found to be binge drinkers, compared with 42.7 percent of all students surveyed.
The findings come after years of more encouraging news, other researchers say. Prof. Lloyd Johnston of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan said that his institute's surveys have produced findings on college drinking similar to Harvard's, but because it has been following college students since 1980, it can add some longer-term perspective.
"In fact, there was a period of decline in drinking and heavy drinking," he said. "Binge drinking as we call it actually dropped fairly steadily from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s -- by about one-sixth in the decade ending in 1996.
"But there is some turnaround beginning to occur in the last year or two," he said -- nothing startling, but a bit of a "bounce-back," that might be a result of a lessening of attention to the issue.
Judging by more than a dozen college students interviewed around Boston on Wednesday, some of that rebound also seems to come from age-old youthful feelings of immortality, an "everybody does it, no big deal" attitude and a sense that even heavy drinking need not bring serious consequences.
"When somebody gets drunk and needs to be carried out, they may be teased about it for a week," said Brett Altschul, a senior majoring in math and physics at MIT. "It's largely a matter of humor, though."
At Boston College, Liz Russo, a junior, said she had a friend who didn't drink at all and that she herself drank much less than she had as a freshman. She said she had also noticed school authorities cracking down by meting out punishment to underage students caught hosting drinking parties in proportion to the amount of alcohol confiscated. But in general, she said, "It would be very unrealistic to think drinking is just going to stop, because it's been part of college life for so long."
Monica Sandoval and Doug Kahn, two Boston University sophomores, said that five drinks in a row is typical drinking.
"Anyone that goes to a party does that or worse," Kahn said. "If you talk to anyone college age, it's normal."
"It's not like we're all going to be alcoholics," Kahn added.
But the Harvard researchers call binge drinking the most serious public health hazard confronting American universities, and note that it affects not only the drinkers themselves, who are likelier to miss classes and fall behind in school, but also the fellow students who are assaulted or otherwise harmed by them.
Colleges and states have been trying a variety of new approaches to combat binge drinking. MIT, where a freshman died of alcohol poisoning last year in an off-campus fraternity, announced this year that beginning in 2001, it would make all freshmen live on campus. A task force on dangerous drinking had concluded the move would reduce the risk for freshmen of facing heavy social pressure to drink. Colleges in Virginia are trying a variety of techniques, from holding discussions on binge drinking for freshmen led by the attorney general, to printing dates of birth on student ID cards, to "three strikes" policies that put a student at risk of expulsion after three alcohol-related infractions.
And on some campuses around the country, fraternities have even banned liquor at their events. But Wechsler said more must be done. Among possible additional actions, he said, would be to target liquor retailers around campuses and encourage them not to sell high volumes of alcohol to students. "Colleges should be working together with the community to work jointly on the problem," he said, "because simply squeezing the alcohol supply on campus may result in people going off-campus."
But cracking down in general also tends to have unintended consequences, students said.
Since MIT has tried to reduce campus drinking in recent months, said Shounak Lahiri, a graduate student, it does not seem to him that it has actually declined. "It's just gotten a little more stealthy," he said.