As American college students gear up to head back to campus later this month, they'll look forward to all the usual college traditions: football games, late-night discussions, and pizza with new friends after classes.
But almost half of all college students share a tradition that could wreck their futures: heavy alcohol drinking that puts them at risk for everything from bad grades and date rape to fights, serious injuries and even death.
At a time when kegs of beer and shots of tequila have become almost as much a part of college life as textbooks and dorms, a prominent University of Michigan substance abuse researcher warns students and parents alike to heed the latest research, and take steps to prevent the negative consequences that heavy drinking can have.
“People commonly think of drinking in college, in particular heavy drinking, as a rite of passage -- implying that it's common and those who don't do it are missing out on something,” says Robert Zucker, Ph.D., head of the U-M Health System's Addiction Research Center. “But the research data we now have paints a picture that there are all sorts of negative experiences that are associated with binge drinking, ranging from loss of life to being involved in something you will never be able to live down.”
Zucker, who served on a national panel that took an exhaustive look at the consequences of college drinking for the National Institutes of Health, notes that a broad range of studies have shown higher risks of all kinds of problems among college students who engage in what researchers call “binge drinking.”
This level of heavy alcohol consumption, which corresponds to about five drinks in two hours for men and four drinks in two hours for women, is far more common among college-aged young people than among the larger population.
Among full-time college students, Zucker says, about 45 percent binge on alcohol occasionally or often, compared with 25 percent of the general public.
The binge-drinking rate is higher for male students than for women -- 52 percent compared with about 35 percent -- and the numbers vary from year to year. And even though the percentage of college students who drink has dropped slightly in recent years as colleges and activist groups have carried out education campaigns, heavy alcohol use and its consequences still plague many campuses.
Why is college such a big time for heavy drinking? Researchers think it's a combination of factors. First, students are at a stage in life when they're exploring new experiences and new relationships, and developing their adult selves. They're immersed in circumstances where drinking is more commonly accepted and encouraged, including events related to athletics, and fraternities and sororities. They may even hold the incorrect belief that they have to drink to get drunk in order to be accepted. And they tend to have more free time and less accountability, and the penalties for missing class or sleeping in because of a hangover aren't high.
But in reality, the penalties for binge drinking can be quite high. Zucker recites a litany of bad experiences that happen more often to binge drinkers than to those who drink less or not at all. “The list of troubles is very, very long, and can range from things like suicide and paralyzing accidents to unprotected sex, date rape, failure in academic activities, impaired social relationships, and getting into fights that can be very hard to live down,” he says.
The numbers compiled by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse are startling. About 1,400 college students aged 18 to 24 years die each year from alcohol-related incidents, including vehicle crashes. Another 500,000 are hurt under the influence of alcohol, and about 600,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
More than 70,000 students are sexually assaulted or raped in alcohol-related incidents, and 100,000 get too drunk to know afterward if they consented to have sex or not. About 400,000 college students have unprotected sex under the influence of alcohol, putting them at risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
Depression and suicide attempts are more common among those who drink heavily in college, and physical health problems relating to alcohol arise in 150,000 students a year.
Students who drink heavily also have a greater chance of causing property damage, committing vandalism, or other acts that result in a police record. Not to mention the fact that drinking alcohol is illegal for any student under the age of 21, and underage drinking itself can lead to a police record.
Heavy drinking in college can trigger an uncontrollable dependence on alcohol that can lead to life-long alcoholism or an alcohol abuse problem, and all the consequences that come with it.
“There's no question that some students who binge are already in serious trouble with alcohol,” says Zucker, who has studied alcohol abuse and alcoholism and related issues for decades as part of the U-M Medical School's Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Psychology in U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
Some students come to college having developed heavy drinking habits in high school, while others only start to drink heavily once they get to the alcohol-saturated college culture.
No matter when they started, studies have shown that around 6 percent of current college students meet the formal definition for alcoholism, and another 31 percent have an alcohol abuse problem that falls short of addiction or dependence but can still lead to major problems.
“That's a level at which students need to ask themselves, ‘Why am I drinking as much as I am?', and ‘Can I drink less than this?',” Zucker says.
No matter what the reason for drinking, the effect on a student's body and brain will be the same. “The level of intoxication, or blood-alcohol content, that a student will reach in a binge is high enough to impair judgment and decision-making, and to slow reflexes,” Zucker explains. And those effects are what can lead to the momentary loss of balance, coordination, emotional control or consciousness that can result in something that lasts a lifetime, or ends a life.
Zucker knows that teens and college-age young people have an unshakable conviction that nothing bad can happen to them -- that bad things only happen to other people. But he says that parents can help their college-aged children understand that the risks of heavy drinking are real.
“Parents always ask me, ‘What can I do, or how would I even know that I should do anything,' and I have a straightforward answer for that,” he explains. “You need to talk, and you need to look. And if you see things that are troubling to you, it's all the more reason to look.”
He continues, “You need to engage in a dialogue about what the level of your son or daughter's drinking or drug activity is, and get a feel of whether it seems OK, or whether it might be moving into a binge pattern. Young people don't usually tune their parents out completely, though they may not respond immediately to what we're saying. It's the dialogue that's important, even if you don't get immediate agreement.”
Facts about college binge drinking and its negative consequences:
- A “binge” of alcohol use is defined as five drinks or more in one two-hour occasion by a man, and four drinks or more in that same time by a woman. A “drink” is a 12-ounce glass of beer, a six-ounce glass of wine or a standard shot of hard alcohol.
- About half of college students binge-drink occasionally or regularly; the percentage is higher among men (52 percent) than women (35 percent).
- Young adults in their late teens and early 20s who aren't attending college also tend to binge-drink more often than those older than college age. The rate of binge drinking in the general adult public is about 25 percent.
- Research has shown that college students who binge drink are more likely to suffer a variety of negative or even life-threatening events than those who don't drink heavily or at all. These problems include academic failure, accidents that cause injury or death, assaults and fights, illegal activities such as vandalism or drunk driving, unprotected or forced sexual activity, suicide, and health problems.
- Education campaigns that help students understand that they don't have to binge-drink to fit in at college are starting to have an effect, but experts say more effort is needed.