Q & A: Binge Lessons

The following are Mr. Califano’s answers to questions from the Online NewsHour.

What is the typical pattern of a student binge drinker?

Student binge-drinkers tend to be younger — freshman and sophomores, white, male and tend to binge drink on weekends, which at many colleges begin on Thursdays. Typical student binge drinkers also tend to have relatively low GPAs and binged in high school.

When do most college binge drinkers begin patterns of alcohol abuse?

According to studies by Dr. Henry Wechsler, of the Harvard School of Public Health, the pattern doesn’t begin in college but rather in high school. Those trends are evident in CASA’s own annual teen surveys which measure attitudes among 12-17 year-old students. Our most recent survey, released last September, shows nearly 40% of 16 and 17-year-olds drank within the past month. More than half of 17-year-olds – 54% – say alcohol was available at most parties they attended in the last six months. More than one-third of 16 and 17-year-olds say more than half of their friends drink most weekends.

How do current trends of binge drinking compare to past years?

Recent studies show that the high rates of binge drinking have remained constant over the past few years although the number of students abstaining had increased slightly. A 1997 Harvard University study found that two out of five students (nearly 43%) reported to be binge drinkers. Women are catching up to men: 39% of women and 48% of men. The number of females indicating that they drank to get drunk had also increased more sharply than male drinkers.

Does binge drinking in college usually translate into excessive alcohol use later?

Some research suggests that binge drinking is confined to college and that students mature out as they move from early to late college years or from college to the world-of-work. However, there is very little data on large numbers of post-college students.

What kinds of programs at colleges have been effective in reducing binge drinking on campus?

Studies indicate that little has been effective but there are some interesting trends such as overturning Buckley law (which requires colleges not to release any information on students over 18 to their parents) and informing parents of college students involvement with alcohol. Also, some college presidents have argued that if you tighten restrictions on campus the drinking will occur off campus with other assorted problems.

CASA’s own College Commission report issued in 1994 made a number of recommendations to change the drinking culture on America’s campuses, such as offering prevention and treatment programs; banning all alcohol advertising and promotion on campus; sponsoring alcohol-free events and serving nonalcoholic beverages at all campus events; engaging students in activities that foster self-esteem such as community service and developing a national “Alcohol Awareness Index” by which prospective students and their parents can measure the degree to which each college and university is seriously addressing the alcohol problem.

Some type of integrated parental/campus/community partnership might make sense as well. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has currently set up subcommittees of researchers and college presidents to look at this issue and summarize what we know. NIAAA has also put out a request for proposals to test innovative approaches to address the binge drinking problem on campus.