'Extreme Drinking' Dangerous for College Students

Females Less Likely to Drink to Extreme

Man Spilling Drink
Extreme Drinking Is Dangerous. © Getty Images

Although 40 percent of college freshmen say they binge drink -- five or more drinks on one occasion -- a new study has found that up to 20 percent of male students go far beyond the binge-drinking threshold, consuming more than 10 or 15 drinks per drinking session.

Binge drinking is usually defined as four or more drinks per occasion for females and five or more drinks for males. New research has found that a considerable number of students, particularly males, drink well beyond the "standard" binge-drinking threshold, according to a study in the June 2006 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Risks Increase Significantly

"During the past decade, binge-drinking has been the primary focus of most research and public discourse about college alcohol use," said Aaron White, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and first author of the study. "We know that when students cross the binge-drinking threshold, the risk of consequences goes up significantly - things like accidents, fights, sexual assaults, blackouts, dying from an overdose, etc.

"However, one of the unfortunate consequences of this focus on binge drinking is that it sends the unintended message that drinking at any level below the threshold is safe and that all people are at equal risk once they cross the threshold. Clearly, this is not the case. There is a huge difference between having four or 40 drinks, although both are defined as binge drinking."

"Previous research from this group has further suggested that college students may underestimate the numbers of drinks they have consumed," added Susan F.

Tapert, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and program director of Substance Abuse/Mental Illness in the VA San Diego Healthcare System, "particularly if drinking freely poured beverages such as beer from kegs or home-made mixed drinks.

Three Times the Legal Threshold

"It appears that highly excessive drinking among this age group is more common in American colleges than colleges in other countries, but other countries – Denmark, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Russia – also have high rates of drinking among youth."

Researchers examined the self-reported drinking histories of 10,424 first-semester freshmen at 14 schools across the U.S. during the fall of 2003. Numbers of students that reached the standard binge-drinking threshold were recorded, as were those who drank at two and three times the binge-drinking threshold.

"College students drink at levels far higher than we expected," said White. "We found that roughly 20 percent of all freshmen males had 10 or more drinks at least once during the two-week period. This is twice the binge threshold. Approximately eight percent drank 15 or more drinks, or three times the binge threshold. Clearly, simply dividing students into two categories, binge drinkers and non-binge drinkers, oversimplifies the problem."

Very Dangerous Levels of Intoxication

"Fifteen drinks are enough to create a very dangerous level of intoxication, yet nearly one out of 10 freshmen males surpassed this threshold in the two weeks before the survey," said White. "In my opinion, we could make additional progress toward reducing the harm that alcohol brings to our campuses by shifting some of our focus away from students drinking at or near the binge threshold, and toward the significant number of students that drink at levels well beyond the binge threshold.

"My hope is that we could recruit the help of students themselves in this pursuit. It is doubtful that students who drink wisely appreciate the antics of a minority of students that turn into drunken idiots when they go out. Unfortunately, it's the obnoxious students that make for newsworthy stories, thus perpetuating the stereotype that all college students get drunk and act irresponsibly."

Irresponsible Behaviors on Campus

"For most students, college is about exploring themselves, the world around them, and their intellectual topics of interest," said White. "It is unfortunate that problems related to alcohol have drawn attention and resources away from the main business of universities – providing safe environments that foster life-enhancing educational experiences – toward dealing with the irresponsible behaviors of a minority of students.

"These kids are doing a disservice to the throngs of students that just want to get a good education and move on."

Source: The study, "Many College Freshmen Drink at Levels Far Beyond the Binge Threshold," was published in the June 2006 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.