TOPICS > Health

Binge Drinking

April 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SUSAN DENTZER: At first, Daniel Reardon sounds like the typical proud parent when he speaks about his eldest son, also named Daniel.

DANIEL REARDON: He was just an extraordinary kid. He was basically a level-headed kid, he had a sense of control, he had a sense of…in the beginning he had a real sense of borders and limits and what he wanted to do.

SUSAN DENTZER: But life changed forever for Reardon and his family just two months ago. A freshman at the University of Maryland at College Park, 19-year-old Danny Reardon apparently drank himself into unconsciousness at a so-called “Bid Night” party at this campus fraternity house. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where tests showed a blood alcohol level of .5, more than six times the legal level of intoxication. As a result, Reardon suffered brain death.

DANIEL REARDON: Daniel was in the hospital bed for a week before we took him off of life support. And no parent, as I did, should have to get up on a hospital gurney, and just hold his son and cry for hours that he’s dead, never. Sending a child to college to die, no parent should have to go through that.

SUSAN DENTZER: Young Daniel Reardon was among the latest casualties of a long-standing epidemic of college drinking. This week a task force of college presidents, alcohol researchers and students called the situation a crisis. The Reverend Edward Malloy, president of Notre Dame University, was a task force member.

REV. EDWARD MALLOY, President, Notre Dame University: I’ve celebrated the funeral liturgy of someone who was killed by a drunk driver. What do you say? A life snuffed out. How do you have an impact? You feel a sense of responsibility. How could we do a better job? How could we prevent this harm on our campuses?

SUSAN DENTZER: Dr. Reynard Kington is acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which appointed the task force.

REYNARD KINGTON, Acting Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: We’ve known for many years that there was a problem, and we have evidence really dating back for decades that there’s been a problem with drinking on college campuses, but we’ve never been able to really describe the parameters of the problem, how big of a problem it is. And I think that even the researchers who were involved from the very beginning were surprised by some of the conclusions. Just the magnitude of the problem is really enormous.

SUSAN DENTZER: In fact, the task force found that the number of deaths and other injuries stemming from college drinking is far larger than previously thought. Drinking-related deaths on campus had been thought to number about 30 a year. But Ralph Hingson of Boston University’s School of Public Health led a task force study that reached different conclusions. It found the death rate rises astronomically when drinking-related deaths both on and off campus are considered.

RALPH HINGSON, School of Public Health, Boston University: We estimate that there are 1,400 unintentional injury deaths among college students 18 to 24 each year in the United States. Probably about 1,100 of those deaths are traffic deaths. The others are drownings, falls, burns, overdoses and so on. We estimated, based on the survey results, that there are over 2 million college students each year who are driving under the influence of alcohol, 3 million who are riding with a drinking driver.

SUSAN DENTZER: In addition, Hingson and his colleagues estimated that 500,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are unintentionally injured each year under the influence of alcohol. More than 600,000 students are assaulted by another student who’s been drinking. An estimated 400,000 students a year have unprotected sex while drinking. Seventy thousand are victims of date rape. And more than 100,000 say they were too drunk to know whether the sex they had was consensual. And Hingson and his colleagues say that, if anything, those estimates are probably conservative.

SUSAN DENTZER: The task force said that the problem of excessive college drinking is rooted in a culture. It’s manifested in the multiple bars ringing many college campuses…familiar rituals such as spring break…and boozy demonstrations surrounding athletic events, such as the University of Maryland’s recent victory in the NCAA basketball championships.

Jonathan Collis is a University of Maryland junior.

JONATHAN COLLIS, University of Maryland Student: It’s really become what our reputation is. I have a friend who graduated from Virginia Tech, and after the basketball game, you know, he turns on the news afterwards and he sees the report about, you know, Maryland students throwing beer cans at the National Guard and he’s like, “What’s wrong with you people?”

SUSAN DENTZER: Although University of Maryland told us this behavior is the exception, not the rule, they agreed that heavy drinking was a problem for some. Often that problem begins in high school — while for others, it starts in their first weeks on a college campus.

KELLY WELLS, University of Maryland Student: The first semester I was a freshman, and never drank too much in high school but got here and, you know, it was part of the whole Thursday, Friday, Saturday, ‘let’s get drunk.’

SUSAN DENTZER: First-year Maryland student Kelly Wells told us she’s cut way back on drinking, following one dangerous episode that occurred when she visited a friend at Virginia women’s college.

KELLY WELLS: Basically, you know, we got a bottle of Bacardi 151 and, like, I was drinking it straight, completely straight. And I was pretty drunk. And that’s the last thing I remember. And I woke up at 6:30 am the next morning in the emergency room, hooked up to IVs. I had gone outside and apparently I had fallen and hit my head on a curb and been taken by ambulance to the emergency room.

SUSAN DENTZER: Even though heavy drinking is so entrenched among college students, the task force that reported this week said the situation was far from hopeless. It called on colleges and communities to adopt what it termed a “three-in-one” strategy to tackle the problem.

REYNARD KINGTON: The three-in-one framework means that you can’t just work at one level to address this type of problem. You need to work at multiple levels, at the level of the individual student, at the level of the university or college, and at the level of a broader community, and that we’ve learned repeatedly in public health that working at just one level doesn’t work very well when you’re trying to change behaviors, particularly behaviors that have strong cultural reinforcements.

SUSAN DENTZER: At the University of Maryland, student leaders we interviewed said the institution had made efforts to rein in the problem. But they added that hearing firsthand from students harmed by excess drinking could also help. Angela Lagdameo is president of the Student Government Association.

ANGELA LAGDAMEO, President, Student Government Association, University of Maryland: We had to learn the hard way in a sense with the unfortunate death of Daniel Reardon. And if students hear these personalized testimonies of students who have been sexually abused, who have been in accidents or who have had a friend experience a trauma such as that, then I think the message would be, you know, very effective.

SUSAN DENTZER: As for the case of Daniel Reardon, local authorities are reportedly considering whether to bring criminal homicide charges against the fraternity and its members. University officials have declined to comment until police investigations are complete. Meanwhile, Reardon’s father says he’s determined to raise public awareness on the dangers of college drinking.

DANIEL REARDON: We have a situation amongst our youth that is very serious, is very dangerous, and it’s much, much larger than I had thought it was. Also, it’s much more pernicious. You know, I thought my kids would get through this. I didn’t think that one of them would pay for it with his life.

SUSAN DENTZER: And by speaking out publicly, Reardon now hopes to prevent other college students and their families from paying the same steep price.