TOPICS > Health

Binge Drinking, an Institution

June 2, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


GRADUATION CEREMONY ANNOUNCER: I hereby confer your degrees and declare you fully entitled to all of the rights, honors, privileges, and responsibilities.

SUSAN DENTZER: With mortarboards heading skyward, college commencements are underway, those annual rites of spring. (Screaming) But just a few short weeks ago in Florida, another annual ritual of college life took place: Spring Break. On the beach in Panama City, as in other warm places, the good times rolled, and as always, the alcohol flowed.

YOUNG MAN: I don’t remember anything at all.

YOUNG WOMAN: You bonged over, I would say, over 15 beers, and then you did –

YOUNG MAN: Like four shots of tequila, and probably like a few shots of Jager.

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah, like a lot of double shots of Jager, a lot of all that other stuff. He was shaking so bad yesterday that I had to take him to the hospital.

YOUNG MAN: I was doing the kickin’ chicken all over the place.

YOUNG WOMAN: Yeah. He was — he was, like, going almost in convulsions.


SUSAN DENTZER: As alarming as that sounds, for these and other students on spring break only the beach-front setting was out of the ordinary. Many told the NewsHour of equally serious drinking back on campus.

SPRING BREAKER IN BAR: I mean, you got to have your priorities straight. During the week, it’s all classes and that’s what you got to concentrate on; but when it gets to the weekend, it’s time to cut loose, it’s time to relax.

SUSAN DENTZER: For years, cutting loose with alcohol has been considered a classic rite of passage en route to a more sober adulthood. But now that laissez-faire attitude is changing, in part because many experts believe that the problem of excessive drinking on campus is actually getting worse. William DeJong heads the federally-funded Higher Education Center for Alcohol Prevention, which advises colleges universities on reducing excessive drinking. He says today’s big drinkers on campus are different from yesteryear’s.

WILLIAM DEJONG: It isn’t that students drink and then get drunk almost as a side product; that the purpose is to get drunk. It’s almost an industrial strength drinking ritual that they go through. There are funnels and tubes and intense drinking games. It’s an intensity of drinking that we know is very dangerous.

SUSAN DENTZER: The practice is commonly called “binge drinking.” For a man that means five or more drinks at one sitting, for a woman four or more drinks. That’s the level of alcohol consumption known to lead to problems, including fights, car accidents, property damage, and sexual assaults. Over the past several years, those issues have increasingly grabbed the attention of Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University.

GRAHAM SPANIER: It seems to have swept America. It’s a problem in virtually every college and university. It’s something that presidents of universities talk about all the time, and a lot of the negative things that we see in the culture of universities today can be traced to excessive alcohol consumption.

SUSAN DENTZER: It’s estimated that at least 30 students a year die in drinking-related incidents — in recent years, at such campuses as Louisiana State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And last March came the death of a young alumnus of a still another Pennsylvania institution, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Returning to campus for a weekend reunion, 24-year-old Michael Tobin died after drinking too much and falling down outside his former fraternity house. The death led the university to impose a temporary ban on alcohol at undergraduate parties. The ban sparked a protest by more than a thousand students. Back at Penn State, Spanier has had his own share of alcohol-related disasters to contend with. Two years ago, 20-year-old junior Leigh Prevatte died in an alcohol-related accident.

GRAHAM SPANIER: By all accounts, she had had too much to drink. There was a party where alcohol was being served, and she leaned out too far on the balcony and fell several stories to her death. It captured a lot of attention on campus and in the community.

SUSAN DENTZER: Then, in a separate incident, a boozy riot broke out last summer amid an annual arts festival in Penn State’s hometown, State College. As this home video captured the scene, more than a thousand students and townspeople left behind thousands of dollars in damage.

CAROLINE CASAGRANDE: It was just mob mentality, it was a crowd out of control.

SUSAN DENTZER: Penn State Senior Caroline Casagrande is the outgoing president of the student government.

CAROLINE CASAGRANDE: They broke down telephone poles, and lit couches on fire, and you know, just yelled and worked — the crowd worked itself into a frenzy. I took one look at it and I started crying because I couldn’t believe that my fellow students were doing this.

SUSAN DENTZER: Riots and student deaths are clearly extreme examples of what can happen when drinking gets out of hand. But college officials worry that these incidents could become even more frequent, given the severity of the campus drinking problem. An ongoing study at the Harvard School of Public Health has found that an estimated two out of five students nationwide qualify as “binge” drinkers. Even worse, about half of those students engage in binge drinking more than once a week. Henry Wechsler oversees the study.

HENRY WECHSLER: This group, which was about one out of five students, consumed 68 percent of all the alcohol that college students consumed. They drank far more than the five drinks.

SUSAN DENTZER: How many more drinks, ten, twelve, fourteen drinks?”


SUSAN DENTZER: Routine as this heavy drinking is, students don’t always understand the implications for their health. Dr. Booker Bush is a Boston internist who specializes in patients with alcohol problems. As he does in frequent lectures to college students, he showed us that heavy doses of any type of alcohol can wreak havoc in the body.

DR. BOOKER BUSH: Alcohol affects all the parts of the brain. If you keep going past those five or six drinks, you’re going to start having impact on the brain stem. That’s where your brain tells you things like breathe, tells your heart to beat, things like that. And you sedate that area, you’re basically saying don’t breathe, and you can die from it.

SUSAN DENTZER: And if that process doesn’t kill you, Bush says another one might.

DR. BOOKER BUSH: If I can draw another illustration, this is your swallowing tube, and this is your stomach. If you drink a lot of alcohol, and there’s alcohol in your bloodstream, if there’s more alcohol sitting in the stomach, your stomach says, “let’s stop this,” and there’s a valve right here; it’s called the pylorus. If that spasms closed, so alcohol can’t go out this way, well, alcohol is sitting in here, upsetting your stomach — what you’ll do is you’ll throw up. Your stomach will just send everything back up. Well, if you’re a little sedated because your cortex isn’t working, and you throw up, instead of vomiting outwards, you might vomit and have everything sit in the back part of your throat and then breathe it down into your lungs, so then you drown in your own vomit. So you don’t have to die from this; you can also die from this.

SUSAN DENTZER: But such lessons about health dangers are frequently lost amid a culture that says college and drinking go hand in hand.

WILLIAM DEJONG: We’ve gotten that message from alcohol advertising, we’ve gotten that message from, in many cases, our parents who recount their own stories from college. We got that message from local bar owners who run these low price promotions and make it seem that this kind of drinking is really the answer to all the stress that you’re feeling about being in college and about growing up.

SUSAN DENTZER: To counter those messages, Penn State President Spanier has launched an attack on excessive drinking on all 23 of the university’s campuses. Here at the main State College campus with its roughly 40,000 students, he’s created a task force of university officials, students and community representatives to combat the problem.

GRAHAM SPANIER: We need to get real about what the problem is. There is a population that most certainly should not be drinking, but we’re talking about college students here.

SUSAN DENTZER: Spanier has also forged a partnership with Pennsylvania’s State Liquor Control Board to devise ways to prevent students from binge-drinking. The effort represents an all-out attempt to change the culture at Penn State — to discourage alcohol abuse and to afford students more social options that don’t involve drinking. To date, no research has been undertaken to show whether such comprehensive strategies are effective. As a result, Penn State’s experience is likely to be closely watched by specialists in promoting healthy behavior to see whether it can succeed. The strategy starts with an effort to change students’ perceptions about alcohol well before they arrive on a Penn State campus.

GRAHAM SPANIER: From the moment a student is accepted to the university, they receive a letter from me We talk about the excessive consumption of alcohol in that letter and we tell them that if you’re coming to Penn State principally for that reason, don’t come. We’ll refund your deposit.

SUSAN DENTZER: Other changes have come about because of research conducted by Penn State students themselves. Freshman Justin Zartman studied campus drinking as part of a political science course.

JUSTIN ZARTMAN: If students were to drink more at Penn State, or start drinking at Penn State, they started right away. They started that first weekend. So we made the suggestion to the administration, if they want to do alcohol-free activities, they should start right in the beginning and grab the students’ attention.

SUSAN DENTZER: The result: Alcohol-free late-night programming every weekend at the Hub, Penn State’s student center. Meanwhile, big changes are also underway at the 88 fraternities and sororities catering to students at the State College campus. Senior Jami Totten heads the Panhellenic Council representing 21 sororities.

JAMI TOTTEN: On a national level a lot of organizations are going to become substance free, which means they’ll be moving their parties out of their fraternity houses, and moving to third party vendors. That way there will be somebody else taking on a lot of liability, somebody else will be checking ID’s, putting on wristbands, there will be cash bars, there will be a lot more control of what goes on.

SUSAN DENTZER: The hope is that moving frat parties to more controlled settings will discourage excess alcohol use. In addition, under the influence of the Penn State task force, local bars are cracking down on excessive drinking and especially on underage drinking. Hal and Vince McCullough are the co-owners of Cafe 210, a popular watering hole near campus.

HAL McCULLOUGH: We will do whatever we can not to serve too much alcohol. We train our staff for many hours at a time in alcohol awareness.

VINCE McCULLOUGH: We show our staff the fake IDs and what to look for so that when they are carding individuals, they can identify which IDs are legal and which IDs are fake.

SUSAN DENTZER: But bars are in the business of making money, and kids will be kids. At a recent task force meeting, some members expressed frustration about the slow progress. Jerry Prater oversees emergency room admissions at nearby Centre Community Hospital.

JERRY PRATER: We’ve had three admissions for intensive care recently within the last couple of months for alcohol and/or drug use. I wish I could say the problem is better, but I don’t believe that.

SUSAN DENTZER: The task force hopes that the tide will begin to turn next summer, when it plans to unveil more detailed recommendations to combat abusive drinking.