College binge drinking resistant to remedial efforts

More `frequent' drinkers on campus, survey finds, but more teetotalers, too


WASHINGTON -- More and more college students are moving away from moderate drinking and into heavy drinking or abstention, according to a Harvard School of Public Health survey released yesterday.

The study of about 14,000 students at 119 four-year colleges nationwide last year classified 22.7 percent of the respondents as "frequent" binge drinkers. Those are men consuming five drinks or more in a row at least three times over two weeks, or women consuming four drinks or more with the same frequency over the same time period.

The 22.7 percent figure marks a rise of nearly 3 percentage points from the survey's 1993 figure of 19.8 percent.

During the same period, teetotaling college students rose from 15.4 percent of respondents in 1993 to 19.2 percent last year, a rise of nearly four percentage points.

"There is growing polarization on drinking among college students," Henry Wechsler, a Harvard psychologist who directed the study, said at a news conference in Boston. "Nearly every college is thinking about this problem and confronting it one way or another, but despite all the attention there has been no national improvement."

Wechsler popularized the term "binge drinking" in a study of Massachusetts college students published in 1992 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Since then, binge drinking among college students has become a major issue on campus. Instances of students dying after heavy drinking have received wide publicity.

A University of Virginia senior died in 1997 after consuming beer and margaritas and falling down a flight of stairs. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman drank himself to death at a fraternity party the same year.

Colleges and universities have responded with educational programs and policies aimed at making it harder for students to obtain quantities of alcoholic beverages.

A second Harvard survey of 734 college administrators, also released yesterday, found that 96.6 percent reported instituting alcohol education programs.

Also, 98.2 percent reported banning beer kegs in dorms; 87 percent banned kegs in fraternities and sororities; and 62 percent offered students alcohol-free dorms or dorm floors.

Despite those efforts, the overall binge-drinking level has remained steady since 1993 at 44 percent, said Wechsler.

Binge drinking is defined as a man drinking five drinks in a row at least once over two weeks or a woman consuming four drinks over the same time period. It is distinct from "frequent" binge drinking.

"My disappointment is that given all the attention placed on it [by colleges and universities], it has remained remarkably stable," Wechsler said.

Many college students fall into binge drinking because they are away from home and eager to test the limits of their newfound freedom, said Joel Wiegert, a University of Nebraska student and self-described former binge drinker.

"I was the experimenter. It was a scary time," he said at the news conference. Under the influence, Wiegert said, he insulted people, said "dumb things" and broke a table.

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