Those campus binges

June 13, 1994

Joe Camel's nicotine is not the only threat to young people's health; alcohol is also a perennial competitor in this category. That point is driven home in a new report from a blue-ribbon panel that points to a "startling" increase in binge drinking on college campuses. That's bad news for health and bad news for education: Drinking contributes to a range of physical -- and academic -- problems.

The study reports that 40 percent of students with academic problems drink too much and that alcohol is a factor in 28 percent of drop-out cases. It found a strong correlation between grade averages and a student's alcohol consumption. Yet more college students -- 42 percent -- reported drinking heavily in the past two weeks than did their non-college peers. Among that group, only 33 percent reported drinking heavily in the same period.

A particularly disturbing finding is the sharp increase of drinking among women. That's ominous in part because women stand to suffer physical damage from alcohol more quickly than men. But women suffer from alcohol in other ways as well. Drunkenness encourages irresponsible behavior, and 60 percent of college women who were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (including the AIDS virus) reported they were drunk at the time they think they were infected. Alcohol is also a factor in 90 percent of campus rapes.

Alcohol abuse on campus is an old story. But the statistics in this report suggest that a legal drinking age of 21 -- which should exclude three-quarters of college students -- is not much of a deterrent to young people enchanted with the glamorous image and dangerous thrill often associated with alcohol.

Can anything be done? Better law enforcement would help. This year, to its credit, the General Assembly enacted a keg registration law designed to crack down on adults who purchase kegs of beer for under-age drinkers. Similar laws in other states have contributed to a significant drop in popular keg parties, which offer an inexpensive way for crowds of young people to binge on beer.

Campuses can also take more responsibility for providing and publicizing alternatives for students. Plenty of students would prefer to take in a movie, chat in a coffee house, help to produce a play or participate in any number of other activities not centered around alcohol. Campuses, especially those with resident undergraduates, have an obligation to deglamorize alcohol and to help their students find better ways to spend their time than boozing away their college years.

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