By Gabriela De Almeida
College has long been a time for self-discovery and learning, and for many, a time for letting loose and partying with friends. Studies show that incidences of excessive drinking on college campuses and students driving under intoxication are continuously increasing. Additionally, most university-administered intervention and prevention programs haven’t done much to curb these behaviors.
The National Institutes of Health’s national survey in 2015 states that close to 60 percent of all college students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Furthermore, about 2 out 0f 3 college students reported engaging in binge drinking within the same month. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or higher, which typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks within a 2 hour period.
The NIAAA published a review of college drinking in 1976, then published its first update in 2013. The updated review found that while the occurrence of regular drinking has remained stable since the initial review, the occurrence of binge drinking among college students has dramatically increased. The report provided a much needed update on the drinking behavior of college students and the plethora of negative consequences of both drinking and binge drinking.
Serious consequences of drinking can include blackouts, alcohol overdoses, motor vehicle accidents, poor academic performance, injuries, sexual assaults, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and even death. A Harvard study found that students who binge drink one or two times during a 2-week period are three times as likely as non–binge drinkers to experience a blackout, destroy property, suffer an injury, have a run-in with the police or drive while intoxicated.
A 2009 study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that that 32 percent of college students were frequent binge drinkers. Excessive drinking has become a ritual that a large portion of students often see as an integral part of their college experience. Not only is heavy drinking widely accepted among college students, but the college lifestyle makes it very easy to do so.
“The college student’s life is set-up to accommodate heavy drinking,” says Robert Leeman, an associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Education at the University of Florida.
In general, the average college student have more time to drink. They have fewer responsibilities than older, full-time working adults. Dr. Leeman points out that college students are able to make their own class schedules, which can include not taking classes in the early morning, nor on specific weekdays, to accommodate for hangovers and drinking more often during the week.
To make this more dangerous, many college students drink and drive and it occurs most often among students who report binge drinking regularly. One in three students who drive regularly reported driving after drinking during the school year, and one in four students reported riding with a driver who was high or drunk, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health.
Dr. Leeman, who has spent many years researching college and young adult drinking patterns, says a variety of factors play into why many college students drink excessively. One of the most common reasons is to relieve stress associated with academics and work. Drinking stimulates endorphins that help relieve stress and promote relaxation.
Drinking can also facilitate social interactions. A 2014 study examined the risks associated with parties and drinking games among college freshmen. The researchers found that students consumed about one additional drink and reported higher BACs during events that involved drinking games.
The study, published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, points out that regardless of how often students play drinking games, they are more likely to consume more alcohol when doing so. One drink may not seem like an enormous increase, but it was in a sample of students who consumed about six drinks when regularly drinking, which already classifies them as binge drinkers. Subsequently, the one-drink increase from the students’ typical drinking behavior was associated with a much higher chance of experiencing drinking-related consequences.
More college students drink, and drink more heavily, during celebratory type events, such as spring break, 21st birthday celebrations, and football tailgates. A 2014 study published in Prevention Science found that during spring break, about 42 percent of students get drunk on at least one day, 11 percent of students drink to the point of blacking out or passing out, and 2 percent get into trouble with the police.
A side effect of alcohol is impaired judgement. Dr. Leeman attributes many students’ decision to drive drunk to the “here”-focused feeling of drunkenness.
“Alcohol is immediate, and the negative consequences of it are more distant,” he says. Many students feel “indestructible” while intoxicated, he says. Additionally, many students choose to rely on the fact that they actually are more likely to get to their destination, because of the lower probability of getting pulled over or crashing, he says.
Researchers at West Virginia University estimate that each year almost 1,900 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes. About 696,000 students are assaulted by another drunk student, and 97,000 students experience alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
They also reported approximately 25 percent of college students suffer academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, performing poorly on exams, and getting overall lower grades. In a national survey of college students by the NIAAA, binge drinkers who consumed alcohol at least three times per week were six times more likely than those who drank but never binged to perform poorly on a test as a result of drinking and 5 times more likely to have missed a class.
Dr. Leeman outlines a focus on improving alcohol intervention and prevention programs on college campuses nationwide as part of the solution to diminishing binge drinking and intoxicated driving. He says the programs and questionnaires that supply the participants with personalized feedback about their drinking habits has proven to be more effective in reducing risky behavior. Additionally, he says drinking and driving can be reduced by the enforcement of strict laws, like zero tolerance laws or DUI checkpoints.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse shows that pleasant emotion enhancement and coping with depression were related to increases in alcohol-related problems over time. The results of the study suggest that interventions and prevention programs that focus on students’ use of alcohol to alter their emotions also need to be given much greater attention.
While driving impaired is against the law, riding with an intoxicated driver itself is not a violation of law. Most anti-drinking-and-driving campaigns target the behavior of the intoxicated driver and not the passenger’s behavior. A study in the Journal of Preventative Medicine found that efforts to educate potential passengers of the risks of riding with an intoxicated driver, and establishing accountability among those passengers is necessary to curb intoxicated driving.
Programs like Check BAC at the University of Minnesota may also prove beneficial in curbing excessive drinking on college campuses. The Check BAC is a program at Minnesota allows students who are ejected from a football game for intoxication offenses to attend future games by submitting to a blood alcohol testing. To be allowed into the games, students under 21 must be alcohol-free and students 21 or older cannot exceed a BAC of 0.08, which is the legal driving limit.
“The more open to improvement and supportive colleges can be of these programs, the better chance we have of reducing heaving drinking and its consequences,” Leeman says.