Hazardous drinking among college students is a public-health concern, often exceeding that found among other young adults who are not attending college.
There have been no national studies of this issue, however, outside of North America. This study examined hazardous drinking among undergraduate students in New Zealand, finding that binge drinking - as well as related health, social and legal problems - are pervasive.
Results will be published in the February 2009 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.
"Previous studies in New Zealand, conducted at single universities, suggested a high prevalence of binge drinking and alcohol-related harms," said Kypros Kypri, senior research fellow at the University of Newcastle in Australia and corresponding author for the study. "But we wanted to be sure that this wasn't a local phenomenon."
Jennie Connor, public health physician and senior lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, added that this study shows that the "extreme" drinking patterns of university students are very widespread in New Zealand.
"A feature of New Zealand university students which may differ from other countries is the low proportion of abstainers from alcohol," she said. "This suggests that being a non-drinker may make a student a relative 'outsider,' whereas in colleges with higher proportions of non-drinkers there may be more options for a peer group that doesn't drink much."
The researchers compiled web-survey responses from 2,548 undergraduates (1,542 females, 1,006 males) enrolled at five of New Zealand's eight universities. Participants were asked to provide information on drinking patterns and alcohol-related problems during the preceding four weeks, and also complete "drinking diaries" for the preceding seven days.
"More than 80 percent of both men and women reported drinking alcohol in the seven days preceding the survey," said Kypri, "and 37 percent reported binge drinking in the seven days preceding the survey. There was also a high prevalence of alcohol-related problems, for example, 33 percent of students experienced blackouts in the preceding four weeks. The risk factors for binge drinking included being younger, starting to drink earlier, being a binge drinker in high school, and living with other students."
"In other words," said Connor, "the majority of New Zealand university students are drinking in a hazardous or harmful way, and this is as common in women as men. These levels of drinking were associated with frequent adverse events, including one in 10 students being exposed to a drunk-driving trip during the preceding four weeks."
"This prevalence of drinking is higher than those reported in the USA and Canada," said Kypri. "However, binge drinking levels are hard to compare across countries because of differing definitions."
"The characteristics of students that are most affected appear to be similar in the New Zealand and US studies," added Connor, "early initiation of drinking, heavy drinking at high school, and living in unsupervised environments."
Kypri recommends that priority status be given to the reduction of binge drinking in high school, given its strong association with later binge drinking. "It is not surprising that we should see continuity - what any person is drinking presently is the best predictor of future behaviour," he said. "This finding underlines the need for strategies to prevent and ameliorate drinking problems before young people arrive at university. New Zealand's recent move to lower the minimum purchase age for alcohol from 20 to 18 years has probably made drinking among 15 -17 year-olds worse and therefore the job of universities all the more difficult."
Kypri called for a coordination of effort - by central government, local government, police, health authorities and universities - to reduce the availability and promotion of alcohol on and around campuses. He also recommended that universities implement early identification systems to address drinking problems among students as early as possible in their university careers.
"We need measures to restrict availability of alcohol to young people through regulation of supply, increasing price, and reducing high levels of alcohol promotion around campuses," said Connor. "Furthermore, this study provides evidence to support giving advice to families about the value of delaying initiation of drinking, becoming aware of the level of exposure young people have to a heavy-drinking peer culture, and how frequent adverse events are."