CONTACT: STEVE PARROTT
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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
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 increaseapproximately 9 percentin abstention among
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
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
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.