PHILADELPHIA -- Not very long ago, Smokey Joe's, like a magnet, drew students to its horseshoe-shaped bar, with its wooden booths and photos of old University of Pennsylvania sports heroes. The beer flowed freely.
Students from Penn, Drexel University, St. Joseph's University and other colleges still come to the bar, but these days they are just as likely to order a Coke as a pitcher of Bud. Call it the age of moderation.
"Most people don't drink much," said Larry Brooks, 20, a bartender at Smokey Joe's and a Penn junior from Miami. He says he drinks less now than he did when he was in high school. "There's definitely more moderation."
Even though abusive drinking has been a focus of increased public attention and campus counseling because of its links with hazing injuries and date rapes, college officials and health experts who have studied student drinking agree in several recent studies that the number of college-age drinkers has in fact been declining for two decades.
One in four students reported abstaining even from an occasional beer in 1971; today it is nearly half, according to a recent survey of more than 300,000 students nationwide by the University of California at Los Angeles.
The average consumption for those who do drink regularly has dropped to about 13 drinks a week, down from 14.3 in 1982, according to another national study, with much of the overall decline attributed to light to moderate drinkers, who now have 6 drinks a week, down from 8.4.
Among the drinkers, however, binge drinking remains intractable, all the studies suggest, but it is not clear whether it is rising, declining or staying the same. There is evidence that binge drinking (usually defined as five or more drinks at one sitting) is up among women.
The main reason for the overall decline in drinking is a change in attitudes, according to dozens of interviews on campuses across the country in the last two weeks. Unlike their parents or even their older brothers and sisters, college students today do not automatically turn to alcohol on weekend evenings.
Today's freshmen have grown up with the tougher drunken driving laws and 21-year-old legal drinking ages enacted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. More are health-conscious, and they're arranging alcohol-free events on weekends.
"It's just an increased awareness that drinking can become something hazardous not only to your health, but to your academic life, your studies, your relationships," said John Sanchez, a junior at New York University.
Restraint is the rule
Dozens of students said binge drinking was a fringe activity. They said they still see classmates drinking every weekend, sometimes heavily, but even among fraternities, where drinking and initiation rites were once one and the same, restraint has become the rule.
Students in the Northeast tend to drink more heavily than others, but drinking is reported down on campuses large and small, urban and rural, residential and commuter.
In some cases, this sobriety is the result of experience, like that of Brett Sanders, 20, a junior at the University of Virginia. Last year at the university, where students still talk about the January 1987 issue of Playboy magazine that ranked the university 10th on a list of the nation's party schools, Mr. Sanders received a misdemeanor conviction for trespassing after he leaped onto a moving car while drunk. The physics major from Nashville said he has cut back as a result. "You throw down a lot of beer and
things happen," he said. "During first year, it's a let-loose kind of thing, when you get away from your parents."
But for others, there are religious and cultural reasons not to drink. At Wayne State, many black students follow Muslim tenets, and the college has a number of Arabic Muslim students. Eddie B. Allen, 21, a recent journalism graduate who is an admirer of Malcolm X, said "I don't drink, and I don't tend to be around people when they do."
And, as the average age of college students has risen -- more than half are now over 24 years old -- so have their responsibilities. Alice Laster-Rhein, 31, a speech therapist working on a journalism degree, said she was too busy to drink socially. "Now, I have two jobs and a husband I am putting through graduate school," she said. "If any of my fellow students drink, I would probably be the last to know."
Many students said they did not like drinking because they associated it with losing control. "Sometimes, you'll come in at 3 in the morning and you'll see someone passed out in the lobby," said Nicole Culmer, 18, a sophomore at New York University.
Just how much alcohol is consumed by today's college students has been the subject of several studies. In June, a report issued by the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University indicated that about a third of all college women had said they drank to get drunk (though the study did not say how frequently this occurred).