As colleges focus increasingly on the problem of alcohol on campus, a new survey from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that more college students than ever are drinking with the sole purpose of getting drunk.
Data released here last week from the school's 1997 College Alcohol Study also show that four of five fraternity and sorority members are binge drinkers. Frequent binge drinkers at college also reported vastly higher incidences of problems ranging from arguments with peers to missed classes to unplanned sexual activity.
Despite a number of highly publicized alcohol-related deaths in the last academic year and continuing examinations of college alcohol policies, study director Dr. Henry Wechsler said, "the extent and nature of binge drinking has not changed. In fact, there has been an intensification of severe drinking behavior among drinkers."
The study was not all bad news. Wechsler, who also directed the first major study of college-age drinking in 1993, said it was significant that 19% of students abstained from drinking in 1997, up from 15.6% in 1993.
The 1997 report was based on responses from 14,521 students at 116 colleges in 39 states. Overall, two of five students--42.7%--were reported to be binge drinkers, a drop so slight from 1993's 44.1% that researchers regard the trend as steady. The self-administered questionnaire was distributed to a random sample of students, and close to 50% replied.
Half the 1997 group described themselves as frequent binge drinkers. Heavy episodic or binge drinking was defined as the consumption of at least five drinks in a row for men, or four drinks in a row for women, during the two weeks before students completed the questionnaire.
Excessive use of alcohol among college students has long troubled school administrators. But the issue has received heightened attention since 1997, when a series of fatalities were attributed to drinking.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the 1997 death of freshman Scott Krueger after a fraternity party prompted the school to issue requirements that first-year students live on campus. MIT also was named a defendant this month in a lawsuit filed by a 19-year-old woman who said she was sexually attacked at a campus party in 1996. Angela Colt said she was served so much liquor that she was unable to ward off her alleged assailant, an MIT student. Rape charges against the student were recently dismissed.
A similar lawsuit was filed last month against Boston University by a former student who charges that the school failed to protect her from the excesses of fraternity life. Jessica Smithers is seeking $3 million in damages for an alleged rape that took place in 1996. Smithers, then 17, maintains that she was served punch spiked with alcohol at an after-hours party and that she was too drunk to resist what she describes as a violent rape. The alleged assailant was suspended by the university.
Dr. William DeJong, director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, said the lawsuits "make schools realize that they cannot protect themselves by running from the problem. Colleges and universities, like any owner of any property, must take measures to deal with foreseeable risk."
DeJong, whose Newton, Mass.-based research organization operates under a contract from the U.S. Department of Education, said a number of schools have applied "an environmental management approach" to the problem of binge drinking among students. The major thrust of this method, DeJong said, "is to get people on campus in dialogue with people in the community" such as bar owners, liquor store owners and police.
This tactic forms the centerpiece of a recent grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that provides funds for 10 colleges to establish coalitions between the schools and their surrounding communities to help curb student drunkenness.
In Washington on Thursday, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley joined a task force of more than 20 higher education associations to introduce a "Safety Six-Pack" outlining actions and advice to combat alcohol abuse for parents, college students and school officials. Tim McDonough, a member of the Inter-Association Task Force on Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse Issues, said the effort aims to "change what people thought was the traditional campus culture," where alcohol use and abuse abounds.
"There's not a single campus in the U.S. where this issue is not a concern," McDonough said.
Meanwhile, more than 3 million students enrolled at more than 650 colleges and universities this fall will be offered a CD-ROM program called "Alcohol 101." Featuring a "virtual party" at which students are asked to make decisions about drinking, the interactive program was created at the University of Illinois by Dean of Students William L. Riley and community health professor Janet S. Reis, with funding from the Century Council, an organization financed by some of this country's leading distillers.
But Loyola Marymount University biology professor Anthony P. Smulders, a specialist on substance abuse among young people, questioned how much success any of these projects could expect.
"All the time spent on educating young people on how to responsibly drink" is of dubious value, said Smulders, a member of the Los Angeles County Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Commission, "because in this country we have created an atmosphere about drinking where it seems like the thing to do for young people. We're not going to make inroads by saying binge drinking is wrong. I think students know that. They just laugh in your face."
Rather, Smulders says, Americans should try to demystify drinking and take the glamour out of getting drunk. He also advocates abolishing drinking ages.
"I think it should be up to the parents," he said.
Nonetheless, the academic community must combat the notion that college is a place to drink, said DeJong, of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. Even a 2% drop in binge drinking among college students is worth noting, he said, because any decline challenges the assumption that students go to college at least partly to get drunk. For that reason, he said the increase in the percentage of nondrinkers also was significant.
"The message that 'this is college' serves to perpetuate the problem by telling students that this is what you can and should do when you get to college," he said. "In reality, this kind of high-octane, high-risk drinking is still the behavior of a minority of students."
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About two of every five college students engaged in binge drinking in 1997, roughly the same proportion that reported themselves as binge drinkers in 1993. Other details from the study by the Harvard School of Public Health:
* Drank on 10 or more occasions in the past 30 days
* Was drunk three or more times in the past month
* Usually binges when drinking
* Drinks to get drunk
Total % reporting problem
Problem 1993 1997 Do something you regret 32.0 36.5 Miss a class 26.4 30.2 Forget where you were or what you did 24.3 26.7 Get behind in school work 20.0 23.2 Argue with friends 19.4 23.5 Engage in unplanned sexual activity 19.0 22.5 Get hurt or injured 9.2 11.5 Damage property 8.5 10.4 Don't use protection when having sex 9.7 11.2 Get into trouble with campus or local police 4.3 5.9 Drive after drinking alcohol 31.6 35.8 Have 5 or more alcohol-related problems 16.2 19.8
*Results are based on two surveys of full-time students on 116 college campuses in 39 states. In 1993, 15,103 students returned the self-administered questionnaire. In 1997, 14,521 students responded. The surveys define binge drinking as five drinks in a row for men and four drinks for women.
Source: The Harvard School of Public Health.