Why is binge drinking a college national pastime?
By Jennifer Watson, senior, Ball State University

We've all seen it before. Many of us have even done it before.

We've seen the guy at the bar after eight beers, or the girl who celebrates turning twenty-one with ten shots. They become heavily intoxicated--to the point that they are incoherent and can barely walk.

These students are participating in the most serious drug problem on campuses today. It has become a national student pastime--binge drinking.

College students drink an estimated four billion cans of beer each year--and over 430 million gallons of alcohol in all. That's enough for each college and university in the United States to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to a paper by Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention.

On college campuses across the country, a whopping forty-four percent of all students (fifty percent of males and forty percent of females) are binge drinkers, according to the 1999 College Alcohol Survey, a national study conducted by the Harvard Public School of Health.

That study, along with recent alcohol-related deaths on college campuses, has sent shock waves through universities, prompting questions about what can and should be done about the problem.

Though binge drinking may not seem that harmful, the Harvard survey has shown that frequent bingers have an increased risk of alcohol-related problems when compared with non-binge drinkers. They are seventeen times more likely to miss class, ten times more likely to damage property, and seven times more likely to engage in unplanned sexual activity.

"I remember the first time I ever binge drank. It was the first weekend of school, my freshman year," says Joe, 21, a junior at Indiana University. "The whole experience was so new to me; I had so much to drink that I had to be carried home. Since then, I've become a frequent binge drinker. There really isn't much else to do here," he says.

Joe, like many binge drinkers, is white and in a fraternity. The Harvard study found that white students are twice as likely to binge drink than other racial or ethnic groups, and about two-thirds of fraternity or sorority members are binge drinkers. Athletes and students who don't consider religion important to them are also more likely to drink dangerously.

Erica, 22, a senior at Ball State University, says that although she is in a sorority and was once a binge drinker, she feels that the problem involves more than membership in a Greek organization.

"I didn't join my sorority until the second semester of my sophomore year, and I was binge drinking way before that. I think it's more a campus-wide problem, not just a Greek issue, or an athletic issue, or a male/female issue. I know plenty of people who binge drink, from a vast array of backgrounds, religions, races . . . both Greek and non-Greek," she says.

But Erica has sworn off drinking to excess.

"After three years of spending practically ever weekend binge drinking, I'm done with it. It's lost its appeal. Two years ago, I would've been the first one to tell you how much fun binge drinking was. Now . . . I've outgrown that phase," she says.

Erica always binged, never drinking unless it was to get drunk.

"I never had a drink with dinner, or a beer while watching the game. It was always four or five drinks or shots right before I went out," she says. "It's nice to sit down and drink calmly now."

Jill, 22, a senior at Morehead State University in Kentucky, has seen her fair share of dangerous drinking.

"I remember a time when a friend of mine was so drunk she was throwing up blood. It was really scary. Most of the time though, people are just stupid when they get that drunk. They think that they are invincible," she said.

Sue, 19, a freshman at University of Washington, has witnessed similar incidents.

Erica, 22, a senior at Ball State University, says that although she is in a sorority and was once a binge drinker, she feels that the problem involves more than membership in a Greek organization.

"I didn't join my sorority until the second semester of my sophomore year, and I was binge drinking way before that. I think it's more a campus-wide problem, not just a Greek issue, or an athletic issue, or a male/female issue. I know plenty of people who binge drink, from a vast array of backgrounds, religions, races . . . both Greek and non-Greek," she says.

But Erica has sworn off drinking to excess.

"After three years of spending practically ever weekend binge drinking, I'm done with it. It's lost its appeal. Two years ago, I would've been the first one to tell you how much fun binge drinking was. Now . . . I've outgrown that phase," she says.

Erica always binged, never drinking unless it was to get drunk.

"I never had a drink with dinner, or a beer while watching the game. It was always four or five drinks or shots right before I went out," she says. "It's nice to sit down and drink calmly now."

Jill, 22, a senior at Morehead State University in Kentucky, has seen her fair share of dangerous drinking.

"I remember a time when a friend of mine was so drunk she was throwing up blood. It was really scary. Most of the time though, people are just stupid when they get that drunk. They think that they are invincible," she said.

Sue, 19, a freshman at University of Washington, has witnessed similar incidents.

"I've seen people fight, I've known . . . people who've had unprotected sex, and I've seen countless . . . intoxicated people drive."

As the problem worsens, schools are changing their tactics. The new approach seeks to change the social, legal and economic environment in which students make decisions about their alcohol use.

Colleges are establishing zero tolerance policies for alcohol use, working with the communities around them to limit access to alcohol and enforce laws, and creating comprehensive programs to curb binge drinking. Presumably, they hope to change the factors that influence students to drink, like campus social norms; the extent to which school regulations and state laws are enforced; how easily students can get alcohol; and the number of "dry" options.

Colorado State University, Fort Collins is using one such comprehensive approach. The University has encouraged safe tailgating at football games, provided alcohol-free events on Saturday nights, and implemented a "four strike" policy to curb underage drinking.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, known nationally as a party school, has also taken an aggressive approach towards binge drinking. Among other things, administrators are seeking legislation to make keg purchasers accountable for serving minors at their house parties, as well as pressuring bars to eliminate drink specials and monitor the amount of alcohol served to customers.

UW is one of ten schools participating in "A Matter of Degree," a national effort to reduce dangerous drinking among college undergraduates, sponsored by the American Medical Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. William Lugo, who evaluates the "Matter of Degree" program at UW for the Harvard Public School of Health, says that excessive drinking has a long history. "There has been a drinking culture [in Wisconsin] for a hundred years," says Lugo. The project tries to "change [that] culture, and change the environment to encourage responsible drinking."

But aggressive, comprehensive measures, like those used at UW, don't change habits overnight. According to a Harvard study published in March 2000, binge drinking rates rose about eight percent at UW from 1997 to 1999--while the Robert Wood Johnson program was in place. The increase was "surprising," said Lugo, but he also said no one at RWJ expected an age-old drinking culture to change with only four years of work. "Many students have a negative attitude towards the [RWJ] program," he said. "They just want to keep drinking."