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Release: March 14, 2000

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NATIONAL COLLEGE ALCOHOL STUDY FINDS SIGNIFICANT INCREASE

IN FREQUENT BINGE DRINKERS

Campuses Increasingly Polarized Around Drinking:

Drinkers Drink More Intensely While Many Students Abstain

BOSTON, MA (March 14, 2000)– The nation's preeminent study of college drinking released today at the Harvard School of Public Health has found that the prevalence of frequent binge drinking is on the rise across college campuses today. The study finds that the prevalence of frequent binge drinkers has increased from about 20 percent in 1993 to 23 percent in 1999, a 14 percent increase. Part of this increase occurred between 1997 and 1999, when there was an 8 percent increase in numbers of frequent binge drinkers.

Binge drinkers are men who had five or more -- or women who had four or more -- drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks before the students completed the survey questionnaire. Frequent binge drinkers have consumed these amounts at least three times in the previous two weeks. An article on the survey appears in the March 2000 issue (volume 48) of the Journal of American College Health. Results were compared with 1993 and 1997 surveys of students. According to the article, the overall rate of binge drinking in 1999 remained the same as in 1993 and 1997. In 1999, two of five students -- or 44 percent -- were binge drinkers.

Today's findings are based on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study's 1999 survey of more than 14,000 college students at 119 nationally representative, four-year colleges in 39 states. The survey reflects changes during a period of heightened national focus on college binge drinking and of increased efforts by college administrations to address the problem. The research was funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"It is disturbing that these findings show an increase in the most extreme and high-risk form of drinking," said Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "This is, in part, counteracted by a larger number of abstainers in 1999. That increase -- to 19 percent -- occurred by 1997 and was maintained in 1999. However, attention should be brought to bear on the behavior of the 23 percent of students who are frequent binge drinkers."

Frequent binge drinkers consume over two-thirds of all the alcohol college students drink. They also account for more than three-fifths of the most serious alcohol-related problems on campus, such as vandalism, driving after drinking, getting into trouble with the campus police, and becoming hurt or injured.

The 1999 survey shows further increases in the intensity of drinking. Among both male and female students who drink, the proportion of students who were drunk three or more times in the previous month increased from 23 percent to 29 percent between 1993 and 1999 (a 26 percent increase). The proportion of those who drank on 10 or more occasions in the previous month increased from 18 percent to 22 percent between 1993 and 1999 (a 24 percent increase). And the proportion of those who drank to get drunk increased from 40 percent to 47 percent between 1993 and 1999 (a 19 percent increase).

"Today's study shows a continuing trend in drinking on college campuses that is more strongly polarized, with almost one-fourth of all students being frequent binge drinkers and almost one-fifth being abstainers," said Wechsler. "Revulsion against the more extreme forms of drinking may be driving some students away from the drinking scene entirely. The majority of students on American college campuses -- 56 percent -- are not binge drinkers. They either don't drink or drink but do not binge."

The prevalence of abstainers increased from 15 percent in 1993 to 19 percent in 1999 (a 25 percent increase). Overall, there was no change in the prevalence of abstainers between 1997 and 1999. However, during this period, there was a significant increase–approximately 9 percent–in abstention among males.

Many students are also choosing to live in alcohol-free environments. The article's authors write, "one in three students who live in a campus residence hall or dormitory lives in an alcohol-free residence. An additional 13 percent of the respondents who did not currently live in such housing said they would like to live in alcohol-free quarters." This is in sharp contrast to those students who live in fraternity or sorority houses, where three of four students are binge drinkers.

Students who do not binge drink experience many secondhand effects from the binge drinking behavior of other students. These include being the victim of a physical assault or an unwanted sexual advance, having property vandalized, or having sleep or study interrupted. About three out of four students (77 percent) who don't binge but who live in dormitories or fraternity or sorority houses experienced at least one secondhand effect in the 1999 study. Non-bingeing students who lived on high-binge campuses were two or more times as likely to experience secondhand effects as students who lived on low-binge campuses.

"Students who binge drink exhibit a far higher rate of problems than do students who drink but who do not binge," said Wechsler. "But the problems of binge drinkers also impact the quality of college life and safety for millions of non-bingeing students."

Though the proportion of binge drinkers did not change among most student subgroups between 1993 and 1999, there were two notable exceptions that relate to place of residence. Binge drinking rates decreased by almost six percent among students living in dormitories on campus, and they increased by 6 percent among students living off campus.

"The big picture of binge drinking on college campuses remained remarkably unchanged through the 1990s," said Wechsler. "However, the most recent survey may reflect the current focus of prevention efforts. There is some indication that on-campus prevention programs might be having an impact, but this is offset by the off-campus drinking environment, where there is a ready supply of high-volume, low-cost alcohol.

"We need to focus attention not only on teaching students to be responsible drinkers, but also on getting outlets to be responsible servers," continued Wechsler.

A second and related article in the same journal reports on a national survey of college administrators. It found that 97 percent of administrators at 734 colleges reported having general alcohol education programs in place on campus. However, only 40 percent of colleges have a cooperative agreement with community agencies to address underage or excessive drinking and only 24 percent meet regularly with neighborhood groups to address student drinking issues.

"We cannot expect the educational approach that most colleges are taking to impact binge drinking rates by itself," said Wechsler. "There are no magic solutions. Just as no single technique applies to all students, no single approach applies to all colleges."

The 1999 survey article outlines several factors that should be considered in a comprehensive approach to student binge drinking. These include: examining the supply of alcohol -- alcohol marketing, outlet density, price, special promotions, and the volume in which alcohol is sold; helping with drug and alcohol programs in high schools; assuring alcohol-free social and recreational activities for students on weekends; increasing educational demands through Friday classes and exams; and enacting control policies that are enforced.

"Our previous research has clearly shown that frequent binge drinkers do not think they have a drinking problem," said Wechsler. "They consider themselves to be moderate drinkers, and they are not ready to change. Parental notification and 'three strikes and you're out' may both be strategies needed for these students."

Joining Dr. Wechsler as authors of the article, "College Binge Drinking in the 1990s: A Continuing Problem," are Jae Eun Lee, DrPH, and Meichun Kuo, ScD (Department of Health and Social Behavior, Harvard School of Public Health); and Hang Lee, Ph.D. (Center for Vaccine Research and Department of Pediatrics, University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine in Torrance). In addition to Dr. Wechsler, authors of the article, "What Colleges Are Doing About Student Binge Drinking: A Survey of College Administrators," are Kathleen Kelley, MBA (Department of Health and Social Behavior, Harvard School of Public Health); Elissa R. Weitzman, ScD, MSc (Department of Health and Social Behavior, Harvard School of Public Health and RWJF A Matter of Degree Program Evaluation at the Harvard School of Public Health); John Paul San Giovanni, ScD (International Nutrition Foundation, Boston); and Mark Seibring, BS (Department of Health and Social Behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health).

The full studies and additional information on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study can be found at: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas.